You ever drink the kind of tea that comes in little bags with a pithy saying on the tag? You know, things like "a relaxed mind is a creative mind" and "share your strengths, not your weaknesses"and "travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light." I think Yogi tea is one of the main culprits of this gooey sentimentality (which, admittedly, I drink up, with honey). Some time I'll share the slightly off-color twist my husband puts on these quotes (think of the "in bed" tradition of fortune cookie readings), but not today.
Recently I gave up coffee, caf or decaf, as part of an anti-anxiety effort. I adore coffee - the taste, the ritual of it - but it's just not worth the edge it brings with it. One of the up sides of this is that I have much more time to give to my second love, tea. Yesterday I was brewing a cup of chai and perfunctorily glanced at the tag before tossing it in the compost bowl. It read:
Practice kindness, mercy, and forgiveness.
...and I thought, ok, kindness I understand, forgiveness is certainly a good thing, but what does it mean to practice mercy? How is it different from kindness? Off and on today I've had the beginning of Psalm 23:6 in my head: "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." But what is mercy? What would it look like in my day-to-day life? When in doubt, I turn to research, of course. Dictionary.com helpfully defines my terms (we'll pick Mr. Webster for consistency's sake):
kindness 1. The state or quality of being kind, in any of its various senses; manifestation of kind feeling or disposition beneficence. 2. A kind act; an act of good will; as, to do a great kindness.
kind 1. Characteristic of the species; belonging to one's nature; natural; native. [Obs.] 2. Having feelings befitting our common nature; congenial; sympathetic; as, a kind man; a kind heart. 3. Showing tenderness or goodness; disposed to do good and confer happiness; averse to hurting or paining; benevolent; benignant; gracious. 4. Proceeding from, or characterized by, goodness, gentleness, or benevolence; as, a kind act. 5. Gentle; tractable; easily governed; as, a horse kind in harness.
mercy 1. Forbearance to inflict harm under circumstances of provocation, when one has the power to inflict it; compassionate treatment of an offender or adversary; clemency. 2. Compassionate treatment of the unfortunate and helpless; sometimes, favor, beneficence. 3. Disposition to exercise compassion or favor; pity; compassion; willingness to spare or to help. 4. A blessing regarded as a manifestation of compassion or favor.
Ahhh, so, simply being nice to others would be kindness. Being gracious even when they deserve to have their ass handed to them? Mercy. Setting them apart serves to emphasize that mercy is different from kindness and important in its own right. If you are a disciple of teabags, that is. So, if I want to take orders from my chai and practice mercy, what form would that take in an average day? Does the idea of clemency require that you are a punitive person to begin with? Is being gentle to one's children merciful rather than just kind, seeing how adults do have the power to control and hurt their comparatively-helpless children? Is it only mercy when the kids are really flicking your nerves, or when you choose not to rip somebody a new one after they just said something really mean to your friend? Is it merciful to keep a toxic person in your life? Is it merciful to have compassion for somebody who shows you no mercy?
Many modern translations of the Bible avoid the word altogether in the Psalm. Mercy becomes "lovingkindness", "goodness", or simply "love." Is mercy an outdated concept? Is it simply too complex to be meaningful in our daily lives? Or is it an idea worth setting aside from plain kindness, and making a part of our practice? And when, if ever, is it not a good idea to be merciful?