Year of Mercy

Mercy Doubled: On Consciously Saying, “I’m Sorry”

My sister did me the mercy of placing my sin before my eyes and sticking around ...

11) If you didn’t mean to be a pain in the neck to someone, admit you were and ask the person to forgive you.—56 Ways to Be Merciful

This week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the jubilee year begins, “If you didn’t mean to be a pain in the neck to someone …” This is truly the story of my life, the staple item on my examination of conscience checklist. I am a pain in the neck, or in some other part of the physical or spiritual anatomy, to someone, somewhere, every day — sometimes even more frequently. And though I will admit to my share of being a pain on purpose, I have a long and mournful history of not meaning it or even knowing I’m doing it. Of being — that’s how unconscious I am — mortified when confronted with it.

Mostly it’s snark, and a deficit of empathy. I dish out, but I do not take. My eyes roll in sarcasm more than a Guido Reni saint’s do in ecstasy, and that’s saying something. I make snotty remarks in comboxes. I have been known to correct the grammar of love letters. I am judgier than the late Antonin Scalia and nowhere near as kind.

So the second half of this week’s suggestion — “admit you were [a pain in the neck] and ask the person to forgive you” — is so daily a practice for me that I don’t need a Jubilee Year of Mercy to remind me. Yet it’s become pro forma, like saying “excuse me” when I run into someone else’s cart in a crowded supermarket aisle or “God bless you” when someone sneezes. And because I so often offend unconsciously, I find I’ve started issuing prophylactic apologies, scattering them just in case.

There’s no mercy in that. And while surely it’s a good thing to acknowledge the hurts we deal out — especially in a world of “I did it ‘on accident,’” “It is what it is” and “Whatever” — an unconscious, unconsidered, un-prayed-over apology neither expresses contrition nor advances reconciliation. I am The Girl Who Cried I’m Sorry, and I know it.

I regret to say that I’ve only recently begun to understand that there’s another way, a process of slowing down the bumper car encounters. My sister taught it to me by having the courage to call me out over letting her down on an important project. (Letting People Down is number 2 on my examen list.) Mary Lou texted me to tell me I was being a jerk. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked. I texted back a snippy apology. She texted back: “Not good enough.”

That dialogue took just long enough for me to think about how much of a pain I really was being, and how much it cost my never-rock-the-boat sister to say so. Just enough time to pray. So I called her, and we were on the phone for half an hour, two women in our 60s crying and laughing and being honest and clear and accountable to each other. She says she felt mercy in my willingness to accept responsibility and to be more conscious — and she knew I was serious because I never use the phone.

But the practice of mercy here was hers. My sister did me the mercy of placing my sin before my eyes, and sticking around. She did me the great Moonstruck mercy of “Snap out of it!” She helped me recognize that most of the time when I say I’m sorry it’s myself I’m sorry for. She did me the great mercy of forgiving me.

And of course, the mercy is God’s. It’s there for all of us, not just the contrition-challenged like me. Let us give thanks for it, and for those who remind us how very much we need to practice this simple suggestion. Because really, it’s not just sometimes that asking forgiveness is an opportunity for mercy that flows both ways. It’s every time.


Joanne McPortland is a freelance writer living in California.