I’ve worked in what some would refer to as “mercy ministries” for the last eight-ish years—orphanages, after school programs, service project coordinating. The reasoning being undoubtedly split between the driving factors that my faith encourages it, that I cannot stomach people groups being overlooked or oppressed, and that (real talk) it has been nice to get paid to feel like a good person.
The last reason is embarrassing and also not sustainable since at some point in the process, I began to realize that I’d almost been depending on others to be “in need” (poor) for me to be good. And I realized that I too have needs…which totally disrupted the superiority complexes that lay hidden inside my charity.
So…rewrite. For the last eight-ish years, my work has most often been generosity-ministry at best. I’ve come to find out through motherhood, mercy is a different thing altogether. And postpartum is a helluva teacher.
I’ve always thought of myself as a good person. Or at least a decent person. Decent at most things, decent towards people. A decent driver (eh, Luke?), decent income-maker, decent artist/leader/friend. Never a decent athlete, though decently smart enough to know how to get out of P.E. dodgeball by volunteering to sweep the stands.
Intertwined with my decency, prior to our first kid, was my frequently black and white view of life. I—without realizing it—spent a lot of energy attempting to find and practice what I would consider “the best way to do things.” I not only saw the world through rigid absolute truths that would lead everyone everywhere to a free and full life, but the paths to reach them were fairly and frequently specific. I didn’t realize how much distance (and judgement) this was putting between me and the folks that I worked among, the friends that chose different lives, and the mamas who would be in my future circles.
But there has been something so raw, so painfully real and beautiful, about becoming a mom that has stripped me of a level of disillusionment through which I didn’t even know I was functioning—freeing me to see and love on an untapped level of myself.
The first few months of motherhood have, on days, felt like walking through a carwash where the large, rotating slappers represented my weaknesses—thwacking me in the face so consecutively that I was unable to get back on my feet before the next round. This is new for me. This has been good for me.
Our dog (you remember The Issue?) ran away last week multiple times due to the fact that she has begun to chew through our lattice work. You heard it right, folks. She is willingly suffering mouth splinters in an effort to leave us, and who could blame her? She is the living thing who lost my affection once the smaller human got to earth—and she knows it. The walls of my personal hell are lined with her hair and the allergens it carries. We (the dog and I) glare at each other through side-eyes because we know that we could both do better. We have “great” neighbors, in that they always return her once she escapes (you know who you are). And every time they do, I mumble a disappointed “why” through a forced smile. I am so very aware of the fact that I am a bad pet owner right now—and it’s embarrassing. My compassion for those of you caring for multiple living things has grown.
These last few months, I have said all of the curse words in my head and also not in my head so many times regarding everything that must be done and the hours that are not there to do them. In and amongst the cold season, the work stresses, the laundry, and the money conversations—I have started fights just because I don’t always know how to handle these pent up emotions that multiply every time I have to trade one nonnegotiable task for another. I feel rarely able to be fully on top of my game, always sacrificing something to accomplish something else. My compassion for those of you who I pass during the week, carrying the weight of big decisions, has grown.
Depression, as you know, was a foreign concept to me until this season. I didn’t have the experience, or the words, or the understanding to know what it was that people were talking about. I didn’t know that you just can’t decide to climb out. I didn’t know that it feels like you need a translator to get the words in your head out of your mouth. My compassion for my friends who battle this seasonally and chronically has grown, along with my ability to listen better.
Unfortunately, money has gained power since we had Bridger. I have been aware of what we could do if we had it, I have been aware of what we can’t when we don’t. I see how expensive childcare is and war with the idea of staying home, knowing only that our insurance (and probably also my sanity) beg that I not. I watch people who work just as long and as hard as I do be able to afford full time, at home nannies. I watch people who work just as long and as hard as I do not be able to afford anything other than what WIC allows. I have seen my own privilege and lack thereof more vividly this year. And my compassion (and respect) for all parents under the poverty line has grown.
I often have to force myself to get off of my phone (my anxiety distracter) and pay attention to the baby I am feeding, to my husband who is trying to connect, to the trees that are still growing outside in the nature that I seriously forget is just on the other side of these walls that hold my chores. I look into the mirror and see that numb scar that is still under this new belly of mine, and I fight to be nice to myself. My compassion for Britney Winn Lee has had to grow.
My body has proven to be limited, both during child birth and breastfeeding, in ways for which my invincibility complex had not prepared me. It continues to feel limited sometimes as I get to the end of the days, when I really and truly need to peel myself off of this recliner and get the things that drive me crazy done; but I do not. I have lost all sense of and opportunity for efficiency when it comes to the tasks I used to be able to manically knock out. My compassion for women whose detailed stories I do not know has grown.
In a dozen different scenarios throughout the week, in ways that I have never experienced before, I am aware of my weaknesses. I am aware of my need. I am aware that I do not have it all together, nor can I get it that way with any decision of will or effort. I am seeing the imperfections and bumbling nature of my existence, and realizing how I do not and cannot deserve this baby that I have been given to love and know and guide. And yet, here we are; he’s mine anyway.
I am relearning, in every area, that we only get better together, that it takes us all.
When you are giving out of your surplus (real or imagined), that is generosity—and in many cases, the world benefits from that. But when you are giving out of your need…that need that you are so acutely aware of, that need that cries out for relief and help and grace…that is what I’ve come to understand as mercy—and the world runs best on this. Mercy is someone giving their entire self to me though I cannot deserve or repay it. Mercy is me being able to give my entire self to another though I feel dried up and incompetent. Mercy is that web of sacrifice where people who know they need each other are constantly emptying out their almost-dry cups to fill someone else’s—like how under-resourced communities, momma circles, and cancer patients take care of their own. It is the richest trade there is, I’ve come to believe.
Mercy is a great leveler, ushering out the judgement that divides us, inviting in a sense of grace and wonder toward differences.
I am crying while I type this because…I don’t know why. Because it has been one of the most humbling lessons of my life? Because I feel more connected to the swollen, unrefined, and deep reality of what it means to be human than ever before? Because this has brought new definition to a word that has therefore brought new meaning to my faith? Because it has changed how I offer grace to people who do not live or speak or choose the same way I do?
This new—what feels like—cracking open and expansion of my heart has offered a fresh gentleness to Self and a revived compassion for the people of the world who are trying to make it in the ways that they know how. I watch single moms differently. I read about Muslim refugees differently. I absorb news about racism towards black children differently. I hear about loneliness differently. I watch commercials that have even the slightest bit of the human story in it and I WEEP. I feel it and them and this fight for a good life more deeply in my bones than I did before labor. Than I did before I understood my limitations and therefore my humanity and therefore our connection.
In an On Being interview, Walter Brueggemann was quoted saying, “Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ is ‘womb’ with different vowel points. And so mercy, she suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of the mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and the reality and the identity of the child.”
This feels true to me—in what I feel I have been able to offer and what I feel like I have so desperately needed to receive.
Mercy is the exchange of people who know they need each other. And I am finally one of them.