Today we talked about how stories shape our lives: our own stories and those of others. She shared something personal with me and then apologized for "dumping" it on me as we often say when we are vulnerable. It made me think of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said in this speech; that our jagged edges are the things that others can grab on to. If we are perfect and smooth, there's nothing for anyone to grab or connect to. We all want to be perfect, but we lose our sense of humanity in search for this perfection.
I remember when I was a kid learning about how to write a story. We learned about the typical movement of a good story: introductions, where you meet characters and set the scene; conflict, where you confront or reveal the problem; and finally the climax and denouement- the apex of the conflict and the resolution. Good writers can play with this formula a bit, but something I noticed even at a young age was that nearly every single story (certainly all the interesting ones) had conflict. I was bothered by that.
As a child, like many children, my world was perfectly segmented by right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous. In my innocence, I wanted a story that was right, good, and safe. Any conflict meant that something was wrong. This idea is of course fostered by our upbringing, certainly mine; where we are taught to be good, kind, and to do the right thing. The hope of our parents, our teachers, our mentors- is that we do good. Or in my Christian context: "O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
This is not a bad goal, the problem for us comes when our concept of right, good, and safe become less clear, or even in conflict with each other. The problem comes when we no longer are sure what is right, good, and safe- and we have no tried and true way of discernment. When confronted with the grey-areas of life we have to choose: do we throw our whole foundation out the window, find and claim an un-movable firm foundation, or figure out a way to move and change with the nuance? That last option feels super unsafe and fuzzy.
It's no wonder that our loss of innocence is nearly always an instance when someone we thought was good, does harm; or when something bad is done under the pretense of goodness. We learn that there are nuances, that good and bad is not always obvious. That deception exists. We learn that no matter how hard we try, there are things we have no control over, conflicts we cannot fix. To our utter dismay, there are adults who don't know what to do.
It's hard as a parent to teach children how to handle this. We want our children to continue to do good, while protecting them from harm. We want them to trust that in general, we have better judgment of what to do, although we are not perfect. We want them to still feel safe. We want them to be kind, but wary. How do you teach a child things like discernment and wisdom? These are skills that evolve over time and in a catch-22 fashion, we have to discern when we are wise enough to trust our own discernment.
It is confusing at best. I think most adults are still wrestling with it.
Here I come back to the stories. Again, from my Christian context, I'm taken back to that text from the Old Testament. The first thing is do good, or what is right. This is the part we are good at teaching. The second is to love mercy. I realized that in stories of Jesus, nearly every time the writer says he "showed mercy"- it was after he encountered a person's story (either in word or by seeing them where they were). Or, more often, he would be called on to "have mercy" by a bystander in search of compassion.
I did a quick little word study on mercy. We often interpret that word as being forgiven despite a fault. Other translations or connotations of that word lean toward compassion and love (one translation talks about this love being 'from the gut' or 'womb' like a mother's love for her child), which for me places emphasis on the love and feeling towards the person, rather than whether that person deserves it or not. We love to talk about deserve in our humanity- but I'll save that discussion for later. If mercy were to be heard as a word describing a feeling attached to action, I think it would look a lot like what was happening with Jesus and the people he encountered. They asked for mercy. Perhaps rather than asking only for forgiveness, they were asking for him to see them and hear them. So if Jesus had mercy- he had compassion, guttural love for these people whose imperfect lives were left open for anyone to see. He grabbed on (or they grabbed him) and saw them.
So the story- as kids we learn that there is good and bad, right and wrong. When we hear the word mercy- we file it under "forgive a wrong"- or in another way- "right a wrong." Our mercy somehow balances or cancels out the wrong. But this doesn't work either, does it? If mercy is something we do to or even for a person, we have not really engaged that person's story. We have not attempted to grab on to their jagged edges. We would like to see them as jagged, and ourselves as smooth or perfect. This isn't really mercy, it's charity in the snobby sense of the word.
Likewise, when we recognize our own jagged edges, we feel shame. Someone needs to have mercy (forgive/right) on us. We can't go back to the good side until some penance is served, until someone waves a magic wand to balance the equation.
What if instead of trying to jam our grey and nuanced experiences into the dualistic categories of good and evil that we have inherited (from some philosopher I'm sure)... what if we bend a little? What if we grow and evolve? What if mercy is engaging another person's story and allowing ourselves to be shaped by it, thus giving that person purpose and value?
When I was uncomfortable with conflict being a constant in the arc of a story, it was because I saw conflict as a bad thing that needed to be fixed or avoided. I did not see conflict as a change, a transition, an evolution. I did not see conflict as a chance for mercy (to see and value another human). So I didn't pick up the skills to make it those things.
We have heard people say with nostalgia: "back in my day, kids didn't have choices, they did what they were told!" I understand that, and honestly I can see that some parents over-correct from their childhood and give their children too few boundaries. However, the root of that statement I think highlights some of the reasons why conflict today is so incredibly volatile. Those who were never given a choice or never allowed to practice negotiation, simply waited their turn to be right. Now that they are adults, they get to decide, and there is no room for negotiation. There is no space for anyone's story but their own. It's their turn now. They have no experience in negotiation. They write the story, and any conflict will be one-sided when they are good and the other is bad. The story ends with them winning (good) or the others winning (evil). With those stakes, it's no wonder people are so passionate.
If we learn that a good story (both in fiction and real-life) is made up of several multi-dimensional characters, none wholly evil or wholly good, all with their own story in the mix- then maybe we will come to that conflict/climax moment with mercy. Mercy in this place being a willingness/openness to see and hear the story of someone other than ourselves. To accept that their story is not our oppressor, but rather an opportunity for growth, for change, for resolution that is broader than we dreamed. Feeling mercy leads directly into humility.
The last part of the verse I quoted is "walk humbly." The last part of the story arc is the resolution, the denouement. When I humble myself long enough to actually see another person (mercy), I might be given the gift of resolution with another, rather than retreating to my "right" corner. If we engage in meaningful conflict (not bad or good), we engage with other people, other stories, and we are humbled. There is equal space for everyone because none of us have put ourselves on a pedestal as the most important person. Humility does not mean humiliation or shame. There is not a winner or loser. Humility means we get out of our own way long enough to get perspective, to see others, to grow. And we ALWAYS have room to grow.
So if you think someone is a total asshole or an absolute idiot: do good (be kind anyway), love mercy (hear their story and feel compassion or even love), and walk humbly (accept transformation and give space for theirs). We only have the ability to write our own story, so we are the ones who decide whether conflict is bad or a chance for transformation. We do not have control over the stories of others (or their conflicts), but we can certainly be a good character.