MENTAL HEALTH NOTES, by Daniel Shaw
I’m no theologian. I’m a non-sectarian spiritual humanist, on the verge of atheism but not quite there. I carry no card. But my ears pricked up the other day when I heard Brian Lehrer on WNYC interviewing a retired religious, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has just had his book on “mercy” translated into English. Pope Francis recently said that he deeply admired the book, and it’s creating quite a buzz in the religious-lit world.
Not having read it yet, I want to talk about mercy anyway. I want to talk about mercy as it pertains to us, religious or not, living in the here and now.
In my psychotherapy practice, one of the things I encounter over and over is a person who has suffered a fair amount, sometimes greatly, who nevertheless seems to be unmerciful about herself (or himself). “Why am I such an idiot,” they say, or, “I’m so sick of myself,” or “You must get sick of hearing people whine all day.”
Actually, most people I speak with are not whining. They are actually suffering. They feel stuck in anxiety and depression; they feel stuck in anger; stuck in relationships that don’t feel good and bring too much unhappiness. Some people feel stuck about the past, about mistakes they made, or wounds that were inflicted on them. And as they speak about these things, in a process that is meant to help them sort it out and lift them up, they instead collapse into self-loathing, self-condemnation. They show no mercy on themselves.
I usually ask, “Does that help you get unstuck?” If I’m not waiting for them to answer, I’ll add, “Because it looks to me like your self-condemnation keeps you in a vicious circle. You try to figure out what you need to be able to move forward, so you talk about the problem. And as you talk about it, your self-directed condemnation mounts.”
“I’m just an idiot, I’m sick of hearing myself say the same thing over and over.” “So the process of making sense of things, feeling supported to change, to understand, to heal and grow comes to a halt, because it becomes more important to abuse yourself. How did abuse become your preference?” (Not an easy question to answer, but a crucial one. I’ll save some possible answers for a future column. What do you think an answer might be?)
Another angle: some people can’t stop condemning others, like their spouse, or child, or parent. I’ve seen many couples where one, husband or wife, is angry about every single thing the partner does and doesn’t do. That person, the angry one, doesn’t realize that he is filled with anxiety, doesn’t know what to do with it, and takes it out as anger on those closest to him. Spouse, kids, etc.
Chances are, he grew up in a home where someone constantly blamed someone else for their anger, their unhappiness. Anger and unhappiness do get triggered by other people, of course. But the anger and the unhappiness is within us. The other person isn’t forcing us to be abusively angry. That anger is our own responsibility, and expressing it constructively, in a dialogue that can be reconciling, is an option.
But mercy is not optional. Without mercy, there is only begrudging, resenting, blaming—either the self or the other.
What is mercy? It is, to paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary, compassion and forgiveness shown to someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Begrudging, resenting and blaming says, to the self or to the other, “you are bad, you’re no good, you’re shameful and unloveable.” Mercy says, “I don’t want to inflict pain. You’re human, I’m human, and you/I deserve compassion and forgiveness simply because we are human.”
Yes, there is a time, and a need, for anger to be expressed between intimates. The absence of willingness to fight often signals indifference, even contempt. But if mercy is not also present, there is no moving forward. This is nothing new. As the Old Testament states, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Psalms, 85:10. To which I say, Amen.
Daniel Shaw LCSW practices psych in Nyack and in New York City. His book, “Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation” is published by Routledge. E-mail Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org visit www.danielshawlcsw.com