Is there a glimmer of mercy in the universe?
Dwelling in silence this morning in the ballet studio, I reflected on the 35 years I have called the barre home. As I looked across the room my eye caught the image of one of my fellow classmates who recently moved to the area and is struggling to get her feet settled. A few weeks ago she shared after class some of her frustrations and how without this class to attend she probably would have given up and gone back home. I smiled in resonance with her sentiment. How many times in my life has a dance class been my salvation? Even at my lowest I could step to the barre and somehow the music and the mirror reflected back to me that I belong, I am not alone, there is more to life than this current frustration, this current setback, this current reality. Dance has often provided a glimmer of mercy in the universe when I have needed it most.
As a sophomore in high school I read Camus’ The Stranger with rapt attention. Drinking coffee at his mother’s funeral, abetting his neighbor’s brutality, repeatedly shooting a man simply because he is hot, Meursault was and remains a distasteful stranger to me. I could resonant with his longing for meaning in the great vastness of the universe but when he eventually opened his soul to the signs and stars of a benign, indifferent universe, I thought, NO. Even in the broken cruelty of a Flannery O’Connor character, there is always one who glimpses a place of mercy in this often hard and mysterious world. A grandmother witnesses the brutal killing of her family and as she converses with the serial killer who will indifferently execute her as well, she will not allow the cruel brutality of another to snuff out the whisper of mercy in her existence. She could have titled this story the soul-crushing, hopeless: “There are no good men,” but instead a glimmer of mercy is seen in the title of her story: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” No puppy dogs and rainbows, but a glimmer.
Of late, Elizabeth and I have conversed at length about a family she wrote about recently at HuffPost where the caregiving husband kills his wife and then himself, and sadly they are one of many others. I have shared with her that I am haunted by the husband’s picture, which for some reason, The Alzheimer’s Reading Room shared when they broke the news of his and his wife’s death. The echoes of every 75 year old man I have ever known or served as a pastor lives in his smile. Gazing at his picture, a list of names and faces of my own run like a ticker tape through my mind. I see their smiles, their families and their stories of sacrifice, health crises, relentless debility and crushing grief at all that can be lost before death, and I wonder, why murder and suicide for one and not for so many others?
I have been asked that question about hospice patients many times. “Do a lot of patients commit suicide?” And my answer is always a resounding, “No.” On the one hand I understand a healthy person being perplexed that one would not want to end life when the promises of tomorrow are waning, but that perspective seems naïve and a bit sheltered. Over a decade of serving countless individuals, I have only experienced one suicide. That suicide devastated that family and our hospice team in ways that death never has. As our team sat with counselors to process our thoughts and emotions I wondered, ‘We are around death 24/7. Most of the people at this table are on call at night and on weekends. I have taken calls on Christmas and been with families and our team whenever needed. Why does this suicide grieve us so acutely?’ The only word I could find was mercy. Part of the beauty I have seen on a hospice team is the abiding belief in the inherent mercy of the universe which may be communicated through a cool rag on a forehead, a reassuring voice over the telephone, through the mystical moments when a person is still with us and yet already gone. We focus on alleviating pain, loneliness and fear, because those experiences build on the relentlessly unmerciful elements of existence. In finding the unique expressions of mercy in a person’s life, we contribute to ongoing glimmers of mercy in the universe.
Many have implied that killing his wife and himself was merciful. Euthanasia proponents will even use the term “mercy killing.” But I take issue with that use of the word mercy. I know that psychologists and counselors, Alzheimer’s and grief experts will say that suicide is always the result of a mix of nature and nurture, chemical make-up and mental health, circumstance and chance. As with the many roles we play, the true burden of caregiving can only be experienced first-hand, and the trek of caring for a loved one is rife with moments where the stars and signs of the universe gaze down with unfeeling and unmerciful indifference. But when I use the word “mercy” I try to do so carefully. When I think of mercy, I think of receiving undeserved or unmerited kindness or treatment. A merciful act is one that reconnects us to humankind—reminds us that we belong, that we are not alone, and that our lives have meaning beyond the current reality.
“On the just and unjust, alike it doth rain,
And the quality of mercy is not strained.” Michelle Shocked