Mercy derives from empathy or the capacity to experience another person’s feelings. The response from someone lacking empathy is most often framed intellectually or rationally rather than emotionally. If your friend tells you that he or she is sad, angry and afraid because their spouse has just left, it’s unlikely that you would respond with a plan for him or her to find a new one or to wreak legal and fiscal revenge on the departed spouse. It’s more likely that you would acknowledge and endorse your friend’s feelings by expressing your understanding and sympathy. Most often, people in emotional distress need only to be heard and acknowledged. Heavy-handed attempts to fix their problems and offer advice not only miss the point, they further isolate the distressed individuals. When one is privy to the pain of another and allows that person to give it voice, it often allows the distress to diminish in time and make way for sound advice.
But some people are simply tone deaf to the pain of those around them. They are comfortable blaming those in adversity – kids struggling with bad youthful decisions, people in mid-life who have fallen out of the economy, or the elderly struggling with the infirmities of old age. They experience no empathy and may even blame the victim. This Atlas Shrugged vision of those who have not managed to claw their way up the economic ladder to wealth or even subsistence has become politically popular.
Today, the charitable endeavors of an organized society, often called its “social safety net,” are commonly called “entitlements” with an implied judgment that those in need have chosen their lot in life and greedily await relief.
The organizing principles of government have always included efforts to enhance community and, though they may change over time, they have generally included the orphaned, the poor, the unemployed, the infirm and the aged.
To suggest that we abandon these principles at this point in our history is to me unthinkable – much less to give as the sole reason for doing so the need to lower taxes on the wealthy among us – who are richer now than they have ever been in our 200-year history but still have not created the jobs that have gone missing because they don’t want to be subject to regulatory laws like the rest of us. But that seemed to be the gist of Clint Eastwood’s remarks at the Republican convention – and it was an interesting moment of political theater.
But then I remembered a passage from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in which “The quality of mercy” is described in some of the most eloquent lines ever expressed in the English language. It goes like this:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
And it famously concludes that “earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”