Dreaming of Mercy Street
When I first began fencing, I often let my opponent win. This seems like a shocking confession coming from someone who has spent the majority of his life trying to make it to the top of his sport. If I sensed that my opponent might be too upset by losing, I would let up on them. In other words, I would show mercy.
At the Battle of Jaffa, when King Richard the Lionheart's horse was killed and he was forced to battle on foot, Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, sent him two of his own horses, so he could continue fighting with honor. The Crusaders then went on to win the battle.
"Mercy": showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone to whom it is in one's power to punish or do harm. Would it have done "harm" to my opponent if I beat him? I thought so at the time based on the way in which he would storm up and down the strip, as if the very possibility of losing might cause him to explode.
A crucial component of the definition of mercy is that you cannot show it unless you already hold power over another. The impoverished and disenfranchised cannot show mercy by definition.
I had to get over the tendency to let my opponents win pretty quickly if I was going to be a successful athlete, and I wanted to be a successful athlete. I dreamed of going to the Olympics. A successful athlete has to crush his opponents, to dominate them. It is expected. It is, in fact, rewarded. And so it was not enough to beat my opponents, I needed to beat them as badly as possible. To skunk them. To "bagel" them. The bagel being the shape of a zero. My goal was to make sure my opponents didn't score a touch. You can't afford mercy if you want to breed fear.
It's not surprising I was able to get past my desire to show mercy so quickly. It's difficult to be human on planet earth without failing to show mercy somewhere along the line. There was the time when I was eleven and I shot the injured bird over and over again with a pea-shooter. It couldn't fly away, and so I kept blowing kernels of corn through my straw. Each time, it looked at me and chirped, and I was sure it was asking why. Not that I could answer. Children learn quickly when they must show mercy and when they can get away with leaving it in the dust.
I've often wondered how many times the fact that I beat someone in fencing for an important bout may have changed their lives. Did they ever give up on their dream as a result? I do know one fencer who still reminds me twenty years later that he only came to the realization it was time to quit after I destroyed him 5-0, 5-0 for the second tournament in a row. Was my lack of mercy a favor or a curse? I know that when I lost the bout that lost me the world championship team in 1994, I returned to my hotel room and threw up. I sometimes wonder if I've ever recovered from that loss. But would I have wanted my opponent to show mercy? I don't think so.
Mercy from the Latin "price paid or wages" as in merc, merxi—"merchandise." When we show mercy to another are we earning something or is it the price paid for living?
There are moments when we might wish to show mercy but we cannot. Another bird from my youth. This time the bird was caught in a freshly tarred road. I should have killed it. Put it out of its misery. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I thought about riding my bike over it, hitting it with a stick, a rock. I rode my bike toward it but slammed on the brakes at the last second. I held the rock over its head but couldn't bring it down. What stayed my hand was imagining its suffering if I didn't happen to kill it right away. So, I let it suffer more.
When we fail to show mercy what price is paid?
I overcame my tendency to let my opponent win by cultivating a philosophy wherein I was really showing mercy by fencing my best. In my admittedly warped view, I rationalized that if I fenced to the best of my ability, I would give my opponent the chance to fence to the best of his ability. In my line of reasoning, I would actually do more harm to my opponent by fencing poorly. I am not a republican. Politically, I'm as far to the left as you can go, but I sometimes wonder if my fencing philosophy has a little too much in common with the Horatio Alger story of picking yourself up by your bootstraps. The best thing for you is to get beaten. You can't grow into a whole human being if you're given a handout. I'm not very comfortable with this.
Welfare spending is about half what the U.S. government forks out in subsidies to big corporations.1 Three hundred of the most profitable companies in the U.S. pay a tax rate of half the corporate rate of 35%. Thirty of the most profitable companies have a negative income tax rate even though they took home a combined profit of 160 billion dollars.2 It's clear we don't expect corporations to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), Jesus describes fatherly mercy as a "gratuitous, generous gift."
When I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing at age 37 after finally realizing what I wanted to do with my life, my parents let me know that if I hit some rough spots financially, they would be there to help. Their "handouts" allowed me to get through school and turn my life around. I never felt like less of a person because I accepted their money. Nor did taking their money diminish my understanding of the importance of earning my own way. If anything, it made me more determined to prove myself and show that their investment in me was not in vain.
In Ephesians: 2-4, the Apostle Paul refers to the mercy of God in terms of salvation: "God, being rich in mercy...even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ." Here mercy has the power to transform, to resurrect the metaphoric dead. The one who has mercy, in this case God, must be rich, if he is to bestow these riches, this "price paid" on others.
According to the New York Times, the actual figure for the corporate bailouts of the first decade of the 21st century is closer to twelve trillion dollars.3 Strangely, we don't expect corporations to learn what it means to earn their own way. We say about big corporations, "When they fail, we all fail." Why don't we apply this same logic to individuals? But wait, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are individuals, so in a strange way we do.
St. Peter writes in Peter 2:9-10, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; Which in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy." God showed his infinite mercy through the ultimate "price paid," that of his son.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison...Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
When we look to make cuts, we feel lucky that the government cuts only 8 billion from food stamps instead of the proposed 39 billion.4 The same government that passed a 600 billion plus war budget the same year. We'd rather drop bombs in the night on a distant people through a proxy war than feed our own poor.
In the Torah, mercy is one of the attributes of God. In one of the central revelations at Sinai in 2 Exodus 34:6, ""the Lord is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness"
It's easier to fail at showing mercy when the one to whom we should show it is a nameless, faceless group.
In Islam, the title "the Most Merciful" (al-Rahman) is one of the names of Allah.
Yin, the goddess of mercy, is one of the most venerated Bodhisattva.
We can label them, shape them into the image of the "welfare queen" or "terrorists," or simply "those people," and then we can quietly and calmly turn our backs, or bomb them.
In Plutarch's Lives, he tells of how when Alcyoneus killed Pyrrhus, he took the head back to his father, Antigonus. When Antigonus saw the head, he hit his son with his staff and drove him away, calling him barbarous. He took careful pains to properly bury his enemy's head.
In The Metamorphoses, Ovid speaks of how Perseus cared for the head of Medusa after he chopped it off. "He makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and on top of that he strews little branches of plants born under water, and on this he places Medusa's head, face down."
My brother gave me his head to care for when he went through difficult times with his teenage daughter and later with his marriage. He opened his pain to me. I did not lay that head down in the grass, but instead offered advice.
I lost my way. I forgot to call your name.5
The greatest power we have over one another is whether or not we listen.
I don't listen often enough in my marriage.
Or with my kids.
My oldest daughter says the only time I hear her is when I ask if she's done her homework and practiced her harp.
My son says I never hear him.
My wife says I don't know who she is and what she wants.
I say the same thing to her.
How, then, can we be merciful?
The relationship between coach and fencer is the most intimate in sport. It's the most intimate relationship I know. Fencers are proud of the fact that the only thing that moves faster than the tip of the sword is a bullet leaving a gun. The sport relies on quick reflexes trained in the body and the body's ability to listen to that of another. To train the fencer, the coach must understand him better than he understands himself. He must know how his student's body will react in stress. How he will react when he has a big lead. How he will react when the opponent yells in his face, or if the ref reverses a call.
The first time I made a North American Cup final, I fenced better than I'd ever done before. I nearly beat the reigning national champion. Many people thought I did beat him. They thought the ref screwed me on the calls. I actually scored more points than my opponent, but it was possible back then to score more points and still lose the match: 5-1, 5-6, 5-6. The point is that before the tournament my coach told me that he'd overheard another coach say I didn't have it in me to win. That I was technically good, but didn't have the killer instinct. It pissed me off. My coach knew it would piss me off. That's why he told me.
I'm still very close with both my fencing coaches. We've shared the same bed while traveling to tournaments. We've cried on each other's shoulders as each of us has gone through divorce, mid-life crises, fears for our children. It's strange because ninety-nine percent of our interactions have been on the fencing strip, dealing only with the body. My listening for his cue to attack. His reading the contour of my shoulder to see if it's tense. My listening for the patterns in his footwork to know when to attack. His reading the angle of my foil to judge when I'm tired.
I say it again. It is a precondition of mercy that you have to listen.
After Hurricane Katrina, the poverty displayed on TV was a surprise to many people in the U.S. despite the fact that fifty million Americans live below the poverty line.7 That's about 16% of the population.
I stopped to listen but he did not come.8
Most of us have trouble seeing ourselves clearly, much less our neighbor. I have to laugh how often athletes blame the refs or the equipment or some other external factor for their loss. Fencing is subjective. The ref has to decide who started the attack first in a sport where the difference between who started may be 1/100th of a second. So, it's easy for a fencer to blame the ref.
I've seen fencers throw their masks or their foils across the room over bad calls. One fencer spewed forth a string of F bombs the like of which I hadn't heard before or since. Another fencer, a proud recon Marine, collapsed on the ground sobbing after arguing a call for an hour. The coaches and parents are often worse. They throw chairs, knock over barricades, get in the ref's face and threaten him or her verbally. Rarely, if ever, do these fencers and coaches look at themselves and say maybe my attack wasn't executed perfectly enough, or maybe I didn't teach my fencer well enough to execute his attack so that the ref could clearly see it. The fault always lies with the other. This is a lack of mercy, but not toward the ref. It is a lack of mercy toward ourselves.
Of course, that's why I'm here. That's why we're all here. Life teaches us nothing if not, in the end, to take a good, long look at ourselves. Maybe we are afraid to because we know mercy may not be forthcoming. If it's difficult to show mercy to another, it's darn near impossible to show it toward oneself.
I've often wondered if the relentless pace at which I drive myself is because I hate who I am, or at the very least am distinctly uncomfortable with that person. Better to keep moving than to stop and look in the mirror. The trouble is I'm finding it difficult to keep the pace as I get older, though it's more important than ever to avoid that mirror.
It's never easy to practice mercy, but it's easier when we're young. Before we've piled up a lifetime of mistakes. Before we lie. Before we fall short of our dream. Before we have affairs. Before we divorce. Before we do not speak our mind when we see problems in our brother's marriage. Before we do speak our mind when we see problems in our brother's marriage. Before we fail to be the person we thought we would be. Before we live a lie. Before we forget who we are. Before we remember who we are. Before our children discover who we are. Before we fail to become the person our spouse wants us to be. Before each day of our lives simply becomes another strand in the rope.
Who can listen to the music of a life and not feel a little bit deceived?
When I returned to fencing at forty-eight, I pushed myself as if I was still young. Nothing too abnormal there. Lots of middle-aged, arm-chair athletes overdo it when they try to regain their youth in sport. But I didn't stop. Not when my pulled hip extensor made it difficult to walk. Not when the sciatica in my back made it difficult to sit. Not when the arthritis in my hand made it difficult to hold a glass or pick up my laptop. Not when the torn rotator cuff in my shoulder made it nearly impossible to get dressed. I didn't slow down a beat. In fact, I wanted to hurt. No mercy.
And so I fence. I plug my foil into the electric reel, march onto the strip, salute my opponent, then try to stab him. I study the other fencers on the veteran circuit. Many of them older than me. And I wonder why they do it. I've watched the grace of a seventy plus year old woman fencing against people half and a third and a fourth her age. I've studied how after each loss she smiled and shook her opponent's hand then quietly walked back to her chair to sit and wait patiently for her next bout. She wasn't in my pool. I didn't have to fence her, but I can't help wonder what might have happened if I did. Would I have let her win? Would I have risked messing up my indicators, my seating, all so that she could have a victory? I'd like to think I would have, but I'm not sure. Would it have mattered to her if she'd won? I don't think so. I'd like to think she's beyond that. Beyond the need to hurt herself. To hurt others.
You see I have trouble not being good. A good person. Good at what I do. I'm uncomfortable when life gets messy. No scratch that. I'm uncomfortable when I get messy, my feelings get messy, and I no longer understand what being good means. Getting older is not about getting wiser. Getting older is about realizing you don't understand anything, coming to terms with that fact, and then forgiving yourself for your stupidity.
Forgiveness as a precondition for mercy.
I come home at night with the best of intentions. I'm going to take a walk with my wife. We'll talk about things besides the kids. We'll listen to each other's story. But then we face off and the effect of all those years of crossing the line shows itself in the way we no longer look directly at each other, or the way we don't quite smile when the other walks into the room, the way in which the conversation is always stilted because we're each so busy looking for the poison laced within the words of the other.
Even if we could begin to unravel the complex game in which we find ourselves, the moment is lost as first one child and then another demands our attention. The daughter with OCD needs help getting into her room, or out of her room, or getting her glasses, or taking off her glasses. The other daughter needs to be reeled in, to be called back from the swing, or the basement, or the book, or the TV screen, whatever it is she's chosen to shield herself with from the daily tension. The ten-year-old son needs help with his homework, or needs you to explain why he should go to school at all when he hates it so much.
I try to explain the homework. I try to explain why my daughter needs to be part of the family. I try to reconcile the fact that OCD has stolen so much of my other daughter's life. I try to talk to my wife, to explain why my best intentions always seem to fail. And I keep coming up short. She says I'm more of a father than a husband. She says I understand nothing.
And she's right.
I don't even understand who I am.
I can't forgive myself for that.
To live in the mercy of God. The complete
If we don't even understand ourselves, maybe we shouldn't judge other people that harshly. Maybe we should grant them the possibility that they, too, are living, and therefore, suffering, doing everything they can to forgive themselves and most probably failing.
The only mercy is memory.10
Let us pray for the forgetfulness of sleep.
1 Huffington Post: Business. "Welfare Spending Nearly Half What U.S. Forked Out in Corporate Subsidies in 2006." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/25/government-subsidies-corporations_n_1912835.html (accessed October 1, 2014).
2 Huffington Post: Business. "Thirty of U.S.'s Most Profitable Companies Paid 'Less Than Zero' in Income Taxes in Last 3 Years." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/major-corporations-tax-subsidies_n_1073548.html (accessed October 1, 2014).
3 The New York Times. "Adding Up the Government's Total Bailout Tab." http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/02/04/business/20090205-bailout-totals-graphic.html?_r=0 (accessed October 1, 2014).
4 Wright, D.S. FDL Newsdesk. "House Farm Bill Includes 8 Billion of Cuts to Food Stamps." http://news.firedoglake.com/2014/02/03/house-farm-bill-includes-8-billion-of-cuts-to-food-stamps/ (accessed October 1, 2014).
5 Cohen, Leonard, The Book of Mercy
6 Clifton, Lucille, "out of body," from Mercy (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2004).
7 Clyne, Melissa. Newsmax. "Americans Living Below Poverty Line Hits Record Under Obama." http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/poverty-line-grows-under/2014/01/08/id/545892 (accessed October 1, 2014).
8 Cohen, Leonard, The Book of Mercy
9 Levertov, Denise, "To Live in the Mercy of God," from Sands from the Well (New York: New Directions, 1986).
10 Clifton, Lucille, epigraph from Mercy (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2004).
This piece began when a colleague stopped into my office and said, "Why don't you write a memoir about your return to competitive fencing after being away from the sport for twenty years." I thought it was a great idea, rich in dramatic and thematic possibility, but I didn't have a framework for how to approach the book until I read about the eight precepts of bushido, the code of the samurai: Justice, Courage, Courtesy, Honesty, Honor, Loyalty, Character, and, of course, Mercy. I now had the titles and topics for the essays that would make up a book where I would use my return to fencing as a lens through which to interrogate "authenticity" given the compromises of age and the pressures of the larger cultural emphasis on surface and youth. What made writing "Mercy" so much fun was the research, moving from pop songs to the bible, to Ovid, to various historical moments.