Mercy and Complexity

One of the blessing curses of being a writer is the refined ability to step inside another character’s worldview. You do this so that you can write the character, but the longer I live, the more my brain tries to hop worldviews in real life. To do it well, you must be able to envision motives and emotions for an identity completely separate from your own. But, especially if you’re going to do it in real life, you must complete the exercise without falling into the trap of believing you can actually read another person’s mind.

Although there are genuinely malicious people in the world, I don’t believe they are the majority, or even close to it. Most people, no matter how wrong-headed they appear to their peers, believe there is a valuable or at least necessary reason for their choices. If you are writing this wrong-headed person, or pondering them in real life, you will quickly discover that perception and empathy create confusion.

What’s the first dysfunctional human situation from your own life that springs to mind? (Don’t raise your hand or shout it out. Just think of one.) If you climb out of your own position in the situation and walk around the table, so to speak, it will become harder and harder to decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” It seems to me that the core of our human judgment of other humans rests in whether we think they meant well. Were they trying to do something they thought was good? Were they trying to do harm?

Our cultural paradigm is to solve or explain a situation by identifying a protagonist and an antagonist. We can then support the one and the condemn the other with an easy mind.

But the more you seek the details of human psychological and spiritual complexity, the more difficult it becomes to decide who is the antagonist. “There is no one who lives who is without sin.” We are all antagonists. But all creation is lifted up in Christ. We are all protagonists.

This is not an argument for relativism. There are good acts and evil acts, good motives and evil motives. But we have lost our desire or ability, as a culture, to accommodate the presence of spiritual tension in everyone around us, and in ourselves.

Perception, empathy, justice, mercy – all of these open us to unwanted depths of meaning and accountability. We are too tired and frightened to be attracted by the chance to understand and care for each other. And our weariness and fear are strengthened every day by the failure of our peers to understand us and care for us. That is the cycle that wants breaking, in my view.

-Photo by Akshay Paatil on Unsplash

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