The Sisters Of Mercy They Are Not Departed Nor Gone
March 23, 2012 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I have been thinking that mercy is an anachronistic concept that has little application in everyday lives. I'd like to see examples (if any) where mercy may manifest itself in your life or the culture as a whole.
posted by Xurando to Human Relations (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
posted by oceanjesse at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2012

Volunteer in a hospice and you will see it all around you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:20 PM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Animal shelters.
posted by tristeza at 3:25 PM on March 23, 2012

I believe the first two examples are of charity, not mercy. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown to those whom you have the power to punish or harm. Mercy is routinely shown in court whenever a judge gives a light sentence to a defendant.
posted by HotToddy at 3:26 PM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

The first thing I thought of was traffic. That is, letting people merge on the highway, staying at a stop so the perso pulling out of the parking lot can get in front of you, and the like.
posted by sacrifix at 3:26 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Life would be a lot worse if people at the DMV, post office, library, ticket counter, etc., didn't sometimes take mercy on their applicants/customers/whatever and say, "I'm not supposed to do this, but..."
posted by jsturgill at 3:27 PM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also movements like Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:27 PM on March 23, 2012

In the criminal justice system. I work in the courts in England and there are many examples, both small and large, of judges and magistrates treating offenders mercifully due to exceptional circumstances in the individual's life.

An example is the case of a mother who jumped off the Humber bridge with her child, intending to kill them both. They both survived the fall and the mother then kept the child afloat until they were rescued. She was convicted of attempted murder: sentencing guidelines would normally have led to a custodial sentence, but the Court of Appeal gave her a community sentence because of her mental health prior to the incident, and her efforts to save the child after they fell.

This is a very dramatic example, but go to any courthouse and you will see all sorts of examples of judges treating offenders with mercy.
posted by greycap at 3:27 PM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

HotToddy, I meant "mercy", in the sense of forgiveness and reconciliation, not charity or generosity. Mercy doesn't have to be institutional; personal mercy matters, too.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:29 PM on March 23, 2012

It occurs to me that I don't know the definition of mercy. People are giving you examples of kindnesses to strangers and everyday compassion, and I always thought of mercy as kindness undeserved but given anyway, in a religious context (God is merciful even though we're all wretches).

So would it be possible to clarify what you mean by "mercy"? Because there's kindness and compassion everywhere.
posted by headnsouth at 3:29 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think small mercies happen all the time in friendship. For instance: ignoring a faux pas, letting go of the fact that someone was late, forgiving mean words said in haste, making up the difference if they're short cash, choosing to be extra kind when they're having a bad day, and choosing to be generous about their character. Perhaps these aren't the sorts of mercies you're asking for, but those are the ones I see every day.
posted by rhythm and booze at 3:30 PM on March 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

To see mercy you have to look for situations where justice is merited, but not executed. For example, I was just talking to my office landlord because his snack machine ate my money. He offered to pay it back and I said don't worry about it. That's a very small act of mercy because he owed me a dollar and I declined to collect it. This sort of thing happens all the time.

There are larger acts of mercy in the legal system and such that occur less often. Magnitude and quantity are inversely correlated as they are with nearly anything.
posted by michaelh at 3:31 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the present economic environment, just about any time an employee is given another chance after making a mistake is an act of mercy, given that there are generally many qualified replacements who would be happy to take the job.

Another example from criminal justice: pardons and commutations are still common. That is, the great majority of prisoners are not pardoned, but a number of pardons are granted every year in the United States.
posted by jedicus at 3:31 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The fact that people rarely fight to the death can be seen as an example of mercy -- a truly merciless victor could/would simply kill the loser.
posted by vorfeed at 3:34 PM on March 23, 2012

This is something of a knock-on to greycap's example, but on school board we do student disciplinary cases, which typically are "Commit offense X and get punishment Y," but the Board has the choice to show mercy to a student based on the individual circumstances. (We do not, typically, have the choice to make a punishment more stringent than listed.)

Again following on greycap, the criminal courts in the U.S. generally have the option to show mercy to offenders when they feel the circumstances warrant it. As michaelh says, I'd look for mercy in tension with justice.

(Another interesting question would be mercy where the recipient doesn't think it's merciful -- like possibly putting an addict in prison, where he couldn't get drugs, would be an act of mercy, but the addict would probably not think so until later on. I can think of situations where a student was on a bad path with a negative peer group and begged to be allowed to return from a disciplinary program to his or her home school, and we chose to keep them in the disciplinary program which, as adults, seemed like the far more merciful action. I'm sure the child would strenuously disagree -- but hopefully agree with us later on that we did him a mitzvah.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:35 PM on March 23, 2012

There's a lot of this in teaching environments. We could be merciless in marking, critiquing, feedback, etc., but we aren't because the point is to guide and shape learning, not dictate it or shame people into getting the material. So in that sense, educators can pick their battles and give some mercy to students/papers/comments that may otherwise be "punishable" for the supreme idiocy they demonstrate.

(that sounds nuts to put in even hypothetical words)
posted by iamkimiam at 3:38 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: So it's sounding like mercy is when someone or something has power over something and doesn't exercise it?
posted by Xurando at 3:42 PM on March 23, 2012

Sorry about that, Sidhedevil. I didn't mean it as a callout, just an attempt at disambiguation, but it came out bossier-sounding than I intended!
posted by HotToddy at 3:44 PM on March 23, 2012

I think michaelh had the best definition of mercy as, not only having power over someone and not exercising it, but having the right of justice as well.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 3:50 PM on March 23, 2012

Response by poster: I like Michael's answer too. but I wonder if you could really call it mercy in the context of today's culture. It seems more like "no big deal". It seems like mercy was a biigger deal in previous times.
posted by Xurando at 4:00 PM on March 23, 2012

Xurando -

I wonder if this is because mercy can be looked upon as a long-term selfish act, within a society. Ah - I'm phrasing that poorly I just know it. But typically, displays of altruism (like mercy) are usually done with the understanding (conscious or no....usually it's not) that you will get something in return, either directly or indirectly. Waiving off your landlord's owing you $1 could prove useful if you've got minor damage upon move out, and he doesn't charge you repair costs.

Perhaps when societies were smaller more overt shows of altruism were required and the cost advertised ("I'll spare your life in exchange for servitude") to keep things in check, and also when societies are newer/smaller/spaced out more governance is more...spread out? Haphazard? Up to the individual dealing punishment? But with the laws and connectedness of today's society, such large displays of mercy are either not needed (if it's a large issue it would go to court) or not allowed (a single judge would not be able to pardon a murderer without a trial....I'd hope).

I don't think mercy itself is anachronistic, but the level an individual can display mercy within the bounds of today's society is certainly narrower than it may have been centuries ago.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 4:26 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Last year a senior manager was merciful to me. I did something terrible - as in 'I'm so going to lose my job over this'. While I knew it was accidental, there's a fine line between that and being negligent. I deserved to be hung out to dry. Not-even-strictly speaking, the manager was pretty much legally obliged to do exactly that. But he didn't. I can't recall ever feeling so worthless, so relieved and so grateful at the same time. It made me a more merciful person.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:08 PM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

I use mercy most often in an internal spiritual context, as in declining to blame/judge myself and others in a harsh and unkind way.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:14 PM on March 23, 2012

When someone says something that *invites* that perfect putdown you've been waiting to make all your life, and you choose not to.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:47 PM on March 23, 2012

There's a lot of mercy in educational settings - giving a student the benefit of the doubt in a grading situation, or, for instance, giving a student a second chance after a flunk-out. I don't think it's rare or anachronistic at all.

I do think it figures largely in premodern religious texts, because in most of those societies there was nothing like a justice system that gave people a fair hearing and predictable consequences. Mercy was all you could hope for if you screwed up and had to go before priests, magistrates and kings. There's the saying, "Where there is justice there is no need for charity;" - I'd say that today, because we have more access to justice for common people, we have less need to depend solely upon or speak often about mercy.
posted by Miko at 6:56 PM on March 23, 2012

How about euthanasia?
posted by WhitenoisE at 7:00 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm getting semantic static on this. Does the mercy-giver have to have a certain amount to lose or gain by giving the mercy, and how able need we be to disentangle pragmatic from altuistic motivations? Or is it just the effects that matter?

In the previous example about fighting to the death, Sun Tzu says it's better to capture an army than to destroy it. He justifies this in terms of long-term gains by saying that angry people (the conquered people) eventually calm down, but the dead can't be brought back to life. But Sun Tzu was also a humanist who favored non-violent approaches to preventing conflict over actual fighting.

In court, it's possible that lenient sentences are given out on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis to society, in which the attitude of the offender comes into play only insofar as it indicates that a more lenient course of action will accomplish the court's goals with less cost to society in terms of a long incarceration, and the effect of the punishment on the offender's family, etc.


When I was at the Renaissance Faire over the summer, I saw a little girl accidentally break a bowl during a glassblowing demonstration. The glassblower asked the girl if she was okay, and accepted her apology saying that was all that mattered to him. It was genuinely moving to see that guy, who the girl must have been incredibly afraid of, with a hundred people watching, turn that mistake into a teachable moment about character. He technically could have asked her parents to pay for it. But he would have looked like a total asshole.
posted by alphanerd at 7:33 PM on March 23, 2012

Mercy is having the right to exercise violence or coercion over someone and not exercising it. Not necessarily power--we all have the power to kill someone if we wanted to, but most of us don't because we don't feel we have the right, and because society doesn't recognize that right.

So say a police officer pulls me over for speeding (and I really was speeding). The officer has the right to issue a ticket, which requires me to pay a fine, attend driving school, whatever. The officer could, however, just let me off with a warning. That's mercy.

The stakes for mercy are lower these days because our legal system is more complicated and nuanced than it used to be, and less predicated on violence than it used to be. Life is simply not as cheap now as it once was.
posted by elizeh at 9:05 PM on March 23, 2012

If you're defining mercy as being kind/generous/forgiving to someone under one's power, you get a calculating benevolent dictator who can be merciful as a strategy. But if you add the caveat that the act of mercy has no direct benefit to the giver beyond making them feel the warm fuzzies, then you get altruistic mercy which is what I think you're asking about, mercy that makes no sense.

Do you mean mercy between strangers, where there are no bonds of affection? Because otherwise every halfway-decent parent has to show great mercy to the frustrating and time-consuming young children in their power, and the same happens when those parents are elderly and reliant on their children.

If you mean between strangers, mercy happens all the time. It's especially vivid in hospitals where people come in intensely vulnerable and are reliant for life and death on others. We just spent two weeks in hospital with a sick baby, and while all the nurses and doctors were professional and competent, there were a few who went beyond and comforted and helped even more. There was no benefit to them - the extra time they took probably made the rest of their work harder, but the small acts of mercy still happened.

Mercy isn't the absence of cruelty but the active opposing of cruelty, I think. And there's plenty of it in the world.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:08 PM on March 23, 2012

posted by samsaunt at 10:08 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mercy is a subset of compassion, and the recognition that we all struggle, and there's no such thing as 'evil to the core'. As we evolve, this becomes more apparent.

I do agree that the concept and usage of 'mercy' specifically may have declined, as we move further away from a black-and-white world and more into shades of gray.
posted by softlord at 10:45 PM on March 23, 2012

As a person who received mercy in a pre-trial criminal case in my youth, I'm both sure there are occasions when even institutions and individuals can be merciful and sure there should be more of it.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:16 AM on March 24, 2012

The response of the Amish community to the killing of 5 schoolgirls at Nickel Mines PA in 2006 was a demonstration of jawdropping mercy. It got a lot of media coverage, so I have to imagine that it has served as an example to many others in their daily lives.
posted by Corvid at 4:57 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Every time the question, 'Would you like to press charges?' receives a negative answer.
posted by ersatz at 7:20 AM on March 26, 2012

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