The Mercy Instinct

The Mercy Instinct May 1, 2012

As a pastor, I see it time and time and time again: a person has been deeply wounded by a loved-one. They struggle to process the world through this new lens of heartbreak. It doesn’t matter if it is a sibling, a spouse, a friend, or a parent/child relationship –we are hurt most profoundly by those we love. It is, in fact, the cost of loving, and perhaps the most painful cost of being a person.

What I notice, time (and time) again, is the impulse of grace that comes into most relationships at the first moment of fracture. I call it the mercy instinct–without fail, the first and immediate reaction of the person who’s been wounded is to forgive, and begin to salvage what is left of the connection.

However: the first reaction does not always win. What’s so amazing to me is not just how easily that instinct comes to us–but how fiercely we fight it down.

Perhaps that impulse of grace is a survival mechanism. We cannot begin to process ending the relationship, cutting a much loved friend/child/spouse/sibling out of our lives, and so our  most natural inclination is to forgive and move on. But then, our baser instincts take over. The ones that want to hurt as we have been hurt, or to prove how right and good we are (as opposed to how wrong and bad the people who’ve hurt us).  And while the mercy instinct might be the quickest and the most natural, the impulses of anger, fear and control tend to be louder and longer in duration.

Perhaps that is survival, as well: the feeling that, if we forgive the one who has wronged us, we will be condoning their actions, and inviting another future heartbreak. Meanwhile, there is a lingering fear of vunerability… If I forgive this person, really and truly…what wrong of mine will i have to face? Who’s forgiveness will i have to seek, in order to be fully whole? And even on our best days, we really don’t want to go there. (This is why Hallmark does not make Lent cards, Safeway does not make repentance cakes, and the Peanuts never did a special on forgiveness…)

Of course, forgiveness does not come easy. Nor does it always take the shape we think it ought to. Whenever I am preaching forgiveness, I make it clear that God does not ask us to stay with people who hurt or abuse us… The Church (and abusive men, and sometimes, manipulative women) use the whole Jesus schtick to a fault…claiming that ‘turning the other cheek’ means to take a beating, again and again, in the name of faith and virtue. Gag me. I get mad just thinking about it. On more than one occasion, I’ve had people tell me what a profoundly liberating distinction this is–that we can forgive a person in our hearts, and not have to keep them in our lives.

But, this is not that. I’m talking about: elderly brothers who go to their graves having not spoken in 40 years–25 of which they spent having forgotten what they were mad about; friends who drift as life changes, and then spend decades, each mad at the other, for not having called; married people that spend years holding onto old aches and pains, instead of blessing them to the past and seeking a future; children who spoke harshly to parents in a moment of anger, and parents who cling to the blow as a backward way of staying connected to the child; or the congregation that cannot–to save its own life–let go the hurts of 20 years ago and move the $#*^ on, for Christ-sake.

And, maybe most often/significantly/painfully… This is about the person who has done wrong, and cannot accept the forgiveness of others until they have first forgiven themselves. Despite the best efforts of the mercy instinct, we can go about hurting ourselves for a lifetime, and feel that–somehow–we are doing some good to somebody, somewhere.

I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last week (big surprise) and Cristina is still trying to process Owen’s infidelity; which came of his trying to process her having an abortion, when he wanted the child. We’ve seen glimpses, these past few episodes, of how desperately they want to forgive each other. And then, just as quickly, how desperately they internalize the pain, clinging to it as to life itself. Because really, it’s the only way either of them can live with their own role in the fracture–blaming the ‘other,’ and feeling right and good.

Except, it is obvious that neither of them feels good.

Perhaps our first impulse toward grace and forward motion is the best, truest, and most Spirit-filled way ahead–not just to restored connection, but to a self that we can live with. That does not mean trust comes back easily, nor does it mean that all is forgotten. But it does say… I love you more than this moment. You are more than this wrong.  There is more to our story than either of us can see right now. This connection, to me, is worth enduring an element of heartbreak.

Survival of the fittest, after all, applies to our relationships, just as it does to our own personal evolution. The connections that survive the lumps of time, change, and personal failing are, ultimately (and i think we all know this) the only ones worth having.

Here’s hoping that Hunt and Yang are reading, because really, if they don’t get back together, I don’t know if I can bear to watch…

The mercy instinct is a good one, and one that, we must believe, was placed there at creation by the God in whose image we were born. The impulse of grace is survival itself; for our families, for our world, and for our own broken souls.


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