Or is the aspect of this situation that’s unique the most important aspect? Your teenager wants an advance on her allowance. She knows to steer attention away from what may be recurrent about this situation:
“But Mom, it’s this special thing! I’ll never have this chance again!”The wise parent, balancing mercy and justice, will assess the good of consistent procedure and balance that against potential goods unique to the situation. That’s skill number one when it comes to the virtues of mercy and justice. Bring attention to that question: What are the likely recurrable features of this situation? What are the probably-not-going-to-be-repeated features? Which features are the most important here? Is your response going to function as a precedent, either for yourself or for others? Or probably not? If not, there’s no reason not to be as kind, compassionate, giving, and forgiving as you can be. The first skill is being intentional and explicit about looking at that question.
The rules of justice can be a retreat from presence. We cite the rule – an eye for an eye – or whatever procedure it might be – and emotionally check out, withdraw, disengage.
Mercy itself can also be a retreat from presence. It's possible to be "dismissively merciful." I might say, for instance, "Fine, you’re forgiven, never mind the consequence." Or, "Fine, here’s some money – go take care of your need, just go." In those cases, I would be using mercy to avoid thinking more about the situation.
With our fuller presence, an openness to put all needs, all desires, on the table, creative possibilities emerge.
Mercy and justice can appear to be at odds, but with creative engagement there’s often a way to satisfy both. Attend particularly to the needs of understanding. What do you need to better understand? What can you help others better understand?
Remember that monkey screeching and spitefully hurling the cucumber bit back at the human? With a little more training, he might learn, “Oh, we’ve got a new rule here. Whereas previously all the chits were the same, we now have a system where the red chit gets cucumber and the blue chit gets a grape.” When we see how we can make things work for us, those feelings of unfairness ebb away.
What nuances might we explore and understand that would help us make our peace with what seemed to be unfair? How can we creatively make the system work for everyone? Who needs to be understood, and who needs to understand something better?
Zen Mastery Bankei showed mercy to the student who was stealing food. Bankei understood that, in that particular case mercy taught the lesson better that enforcing the rules would. This didn’t mean the monastery could get along without rules. Bankei gave his full presence to the situation and saw a way forward that otherwise would have been missed.
Presence. Attention. So round, round it takes in everything. So sharp, sharp it penetrates to the essence.
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This is part 4 of 4 of "Mercy v Justice"
Previous: Part 3: The Unique and the Recurrent
Beginning: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo (c) by Meredith Garmon