By Jack Canfora
“The quality of mercy,” wrote The Bard in his anti-Semitic romantic romp, The Merchant of Venice, “is not strained.” However, in my experience, the quality of mercy is often very strained indeed. Strained past to the point I think that, despite intense physical therapy, it may be out for the season.
I mean, I’d certainly like to think that the quality of mercy – OK let’s be specific – MY mercy, you know, droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, like it does, yada, yada, yada, yada. And there have been times, in a self-congratulatory mood, I’ve patted myself on the back for the relative lack of strain on my mercy. “See, look how unstrained my quality of mercy was when the waiter took so long to bring my bill, I can only assume he’d taken an online course in the interim. I would even go so far as to say the particular quality of mercy I just displayed would become the monarch (pick any you’d like) better than his/her/crown. Good for me.”
But this week, my Schadenfreude has outpaced my Shakespeare by a considerable margin. For over four years (how can it be only that?), many of us have endured daily irritations, infuriation, and even periods of inexpressible shame at what’s happened under the aegis of my government. There’s no need to recite the litany. Recalling the grammar and spelling mistakes alone could set my eye to twitching, let alone the egregious lapses in basic human empathy.
A segment of my fellow citizens only compounded the issue. For every action I found nauseating, they found gleeful. It went far beyond politics. It reached down into our basic essences, held them up to the light, and found them seemingly alien to one another.
As if this weren’t distressing enough, There was, at bottom, an ambient, unnamable exhaustion I felt constantly. The Coronavirus certainly didn’t help, and raised that noise to a higher pitch and volume, but it had been there for longer than I can remember. I almost can’t remember not having it.
And then, on Saturday, all the clouds that hung over our lives seemed to part. There was crying, there was rejoicing; there were spontaneous parties and dancing in the streets of America’s cities. It’s like when Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch, and all of us Munchkins’ world went from black and white to color. Even for those of us not in the Loillipop Guild (who, FYI: are totally stuck up jerks, anyway. And it’s totally who you know that determines how you get in. Don’t get me started.) It would’ve felt soooo deeply, Germanically satisfying to rub it in the faces of those who aligned against us. And I’d argue we’d have every right to.
But then, I realized, if there’s any hope moving forward, after all, like Dorothy found out, killing the Wicked Witch was only the start of her journey, someone has to be the group to stop the pattern. That a sense of getting even, so to speak, like so many things in life that leave one feeling giddy in the moment, leaves a real S.O.B. of a hangover. And just like other narcotics, it can be highly addictive.
I can’t hold it against anyone who reveled in the defeat of those who stood up for racism, cruelty, and a general lack of empathy. And let’s face it, there are many, many people whose cause for fury and indignation was based on real pain and mistreatment. My ire was merely philosophical. So, I can’t instruct anyone on how to behave. I can only try to remember Linclon’s words about the “better angels of out nature,” and try to heed them, as hard as that is. Not only because it’s the “right” thing to do, at least as some would have it. But because of something else Lincoln once warned us:
“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”
I believe that’s true now as it was then. And so I will try to opt for kindness, for some kind of common ground. I will no doubt fall short along the way. But still, I’ll keep trying. But don’t let Shakespeare fool ya. The quality of mercy is strained. For me, at least. As strained, and uncomfortable as a middle school dance. Nonetheless, the music keeps playing, and the dance goes on.
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