(NOTE: I owe the first thoughts of this little post to a FB post from author Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote about how she wanted to be the perfect caretaker as her dear one lay dying, and how she failed miserably, and how that dear one said to her that Elizabeth’s job was never to be the perfect caretaker in the first place, but to show mercy, perhaps most of all to herself.)
A few weeks ago I woke up one morning to find the middle finger (yep, can’t make that up!) of my right (read: dominant) hand actively swelling and painful. Over the course of the day, it got worse, and by evening I was full on immobile sausage finger, ibuprofen and ice barely even touching the pain, and my mother the nurse saying, “Yea…you should probably go on to urgent care.”
Antibiotics, prednisone, a whole lot of ice, and several days later, and things started returning to normal. I was beyond frustrated for those several days, constantly asking assistance for basic tasks, cranky with pain, and using the “voice text” feature on my phone to send work emails. The assumption is that something bit me and caused an infection–I swear I’m wearing gloves when I dig in the dirt and tend the backyard from now on.
That finger is still a little stiff sometimes, and a tender spot exists right at the joint. It was damaged, you see…and damage, while it can be healed and repaired, leaves you different than you once were. And in that sense, my sore finger joint is nothing…nothing at all…in the grand scheme of things…
…because our lives, our existence, our place in the world–it’s all full of the jagged scars of lives and communities broken, relationships shattered at their foundation, lives marred by heartache and pain and regret and sorrow. We never succeed at perfection. It isn’t possible. No matter how good our intent, no matter how true our efforts, we always, somewhere along the way, break something, and it seems to me that acknowledging this is where healing begins.
Forgiving ourselves is the hardest, most painful work of all, and yet, our ability to be at real peace with the world, to forgive those around us, even to find a real way forward…it hinges on whether or not we are able to offer ourselves even the tiniest bit of mercy.
Mercy does not ignore what has been broken. It doesn’t even excuse it. What it does do is make room for what has been broken to be made whole again, even if scarred, tender, and maybe even a little stiff on rainy days or when the atmospheric pressure is just right.
Whole does not mean you will never hurt again. It is no guarantee against another break, either. And it is very far from perfect. But I have a theory it does bring us closer to what we were created for in the first place. I believe with all that I am that God does not cause our pain. I also believe that God does not waste our pain. Into the crevices of damage, of brokenness, into the deep, sore, bruised places of our lives, God’s love extends mercy if we’ll let ourselves receive it, and in the mercy is a chance at hope, the possibility of wholeness, even if a wounded sort.
I don’t know that the tender spots ever go away. They have not for me, anyway. But I’m not sure that’s even the point of healing. Sometimes the tender spots tweak just enough to remind me where I’ve been, what heartache I’ve known, and on my best days, this is enough for immense gratitude for what Wendell Berry calls, “the grace that keeps this world,” and that, I am convinced, as brought us this far.
No perfection. But more perfect mercy. This is where our salvation, our wholeness, our other side of heartache and into new life, is to be found.