Forgiveness and Mercy
I was listening to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert when she said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“Anytime I get a chance to talk to people on the subject of mercy, I just want to put in a word for it. Because I believe that we live in a merciless culture, and I believe that we are merciless to ourselves and I believe that we are very often merciless to each other. But most merciless to ourselves because we’ve been taught to be.”
I heard her say the words “…I believe that we live in a merciless culture…”and I stopped in my tracks because she is right. Being in the healing industry, I’m always hearing talk of compassion. In fact, right now I’m taking an online workshop about self-compassion.
But mercy? Mercy seems like a more powerful word, an active word. And I started to wonder, what is the difference between compassion and mercy?
Let’s take a look at the definitions.
Compassion: N – Sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Mercy: N – Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Also: lenient or compassionate treatment.
It seems to me that compassion is what is felt toward anyone who is in misfortune.
Mercy, on the other hand, is shown to someone who has offended or done something wrong. This sounds a lot like forgiveness.
So, what is the difference between mercy and forgiveness?
First of all, forgiveness is the noun version of the verb forgive.
Forgive: V – Stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offence, flaw or mistake. Also: to cease to feel resentment against.
Forgiveness is the foundation of mercy: the power over that person you are forgiving is what gives mercy its definition.
So, it’s not just mercy we need more of in our world. We also need forgiveness. Mercy toward ourselves, and forgiveness toward others.
But in order to change the world around us, we need to change the world within us.
What does mercy mean if we can’t show it for ourselves? Furthermore, until we can show ourselves mercy, is it possible to show authentic forgiveness and mercy to others?
The person who has the ultimate power over us is ourselves. Only we have the power to change our own thoughts and behaviors. Stop for a minute and ask yourself how nice you are to yourself?
Let’s get honest about this. How often do you beat yourself up during the day?
How often do you feel guilty, bad, or unworthy?
Are you able to look at yourself and understand 100% that you are human?
My husband believes that no one starts out with the intention of doing a bad job. So, ask yourself, are you intending to do a bad job? Is your intention to be a bad human being?
Or, are you trying all the time to do the right thing, not mess up, and be a good person?
If that is true, you are genuinely trying to be a good person all the time, can you acknowledge to yourself how f’ing hard it is?
Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Mercy is something that I have only found for myself in moments of surrender, in giving up my illusions of power, giving up my illusions that I control the world, giving up my illusions that I control anybody else, giving up my illusions that I’m meant to live some sort of a perfect life, and accepting everything as it is. And feeling mercy toward myself for how difficult it is to be a human being within that realm.”
There’s a reason for the popular saying: “Adulting is Hard.”
And, wouldn’t it be nice if someone said to you, “I can see how hard you are trying and I know you are doing the best you can. And I want you to know that I forgive you for all your mistakes, because I know how hard it is to be human.”
Even now I’m trying to apply the words to myself…and noticing that I feel lighter.
We are our harshest critics. We have negative tapes that play repeatedly in the background of our thinking, like subliminal messages keeping us in our place.
We say to ourselves that we can’t do anything right and we aren’t worthy. We look at our past mistakes and use them as evidence to hold us back from moving forward in the present moment. And when we do mess up in the present moment, we act like medieval monks thrashing ourselves in the back as penitence, a penitence that is unattainable.
During this self-abuse, what if we finally yelled, “Mercy! I’m doing the best I can! I am trying to learn from every mistake. But I am only human!”
If you discovered your best friend had made a mistake, would you give them an unending medieval thrashing? Of course not. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat ourselves as we treat others?
It is easy to look at others and acknowledge they are only human. Yet, we expect perfection from ourselves. We need to accept that we are human and we make mistakes. Period. So, let’s get this out in the open, right here, right now.
YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES.
It is inevitable. You are going to make a mistake in the future. It might be 15 minutes from now, it might be tomorrow, it might be next week. Little mistakes and big mistakes, they will happen.
Now that you know the reality of your being human, you have a choice. You can resist this truth and continue to beat yourself up trying to become perfect (which will never happen) or you can show yourself mercy.
Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say you are talking with a co-worker and by the end of the conversation you realize you have slipped into gossip. You have said something about somebody that you maybe should not have. Your stomach drops and you start to feel warm and flush in the face.
Option 1 -You start beating yourself up. The negative tapes start rolling reinforcing what a horrible human being you are. The beatings continue through the rest of the day and ruin any possibility of a good night’s sleep.
Option 2 – You stop, take a breath and say, “That was poorly done. I know better. I made a mistake and I’ll try to be more aware in the future. And if word gets around to the person I was talking about, I’ll deal with that then, probably with an apology over beer.”
Reality is you will probably do option one and then option two. But with option two you can have mercy for yourself because it is really, really hard to be aware ALL the time and monitor every single thing you say every single moment. You are human after all, and you are doing the best you can. And maybe you should give yourself a pat on the back because it’s been a long time since you have gossiped.
Gossiping is just one example. I’m sure we all have tons of mistakes we make in all sorts of way. And that is an important point to remember. We ALL make mistakes. We are ALL human.
Which means that person who just cut you off in traffic is just like you. It means that person who left their cart in the middle of the parking lot instead of taking it back to the cart corral is just like you. That means the person who just went to the bathroom and didn’t wash their hands is just like you. AND, YOU have done something offensive or annoying to some stranger at some point in your life. You are just like them.
We could all use some forgiveness. We could all use some mercy.
Oprah believes forgiveness means “giving up the hope that the past could be any different.” What that means is accepting that whatever mistake you have made is done. The best route forward is to accept that it happened. Otherwise, you are tethered to the past, probably repeatedly beating yourself up about it, as if enough punishment will reverse time. As Oprah says in her one minute video about forgiveness, “It has happened. And now what are you going to do about it?”
Which leads us to the final question. What are we going to do about it? How do we learn to show mercy to ourselves and others?
Loving Kindness Meditation
Loving Kindness, also known as Metta Meditation, is a practice that cultivates compassion by wishing others well. It is also a road to forgiveness. During the meditation, you bring up people in your life and contemplate them as human beings. Then you wish them well by saying, “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you find joy, May you find peace, May you be free from suffering. At the end of the meditation, you bring yourself to mind, contemplate your humanity, and wish yourself well. Click here to read my blog about the Loving Kindness Meditation.
Journaling is a great way to empty the brain of all the junk inside that is holding you back. It is a means of getting to know yourself and how you think. It is a great way to work through any issues you have. And it is a great way to “talk” to yourself when you need a pep talk. As a rule of thumb, you journal by writing down what ever comes into your mind for a minimum of 20 – 30 minutes. You can start with a subject in mind, like an issue you are having with a friend or co-worker. Or you can just start writing and see where you mind takes you. Journaling is like untangling all the mind knots inside your brain allowing you to think clearer. And in the process of untangling those knots, you get to know yourself better through deeper understanding. Through deeper understanding, we learn compassion, forgiveness and mercy for ourselves.
Affirmations are positive statements you say to yourself. Affirmations create new positive thought patterns in the brain to override the negative thought patterns. You can have one that you say to yourself through out the day. You can have a list of them you say every morning and night. You can listen to a recording of affirmations every day. There are tons of affirmation recordings on the internet through meditation apps and YouTube. I have many clients who swear by affirmations. One client listens to them every morning while doing her AM stretches. You can make up your own affirmations or find some in books or on the internet that resonate with you. Same with the recordings. You could make your own recording of affirmations, or find one that resonates with you on the internet. For more on affirmations and a list of 35 affirmations, click here.
For the benefit of yourself and humanity, try on this idea of mercy. Let it roll around in your mind for a week or so. Let it seed in your mind and take root. Then the next time you realize you are mentally beating yourself up, maybe you will remember you are only human and be able to show yourself some mercy. And next time that random stranger annoys you, maybe you will see that person as human and find mercy.
“I just always want to remind everybody, especially if you’re out there and you are one of those people who is practicing universal human compassion as best you can while at the same time assassinating yourself, and having voices in your head that are so vicious to yourself, and holding yourself to such an impossibly high standard, I just want to remind everybody that universal human compassion that does not include the self is not universal. And universal human compassion starts at home by extending an olive branch of mercy between you and yourself.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert from an interview on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast #430 May 8, 2020
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