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A Heart to Hear the Fear: The Mercy of Understanding

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Joanne McPortland - published on 05/18/16

What if that truly annoying person is actually scared out of her wits?

I’m always losing patience. It’s getting so I have an easier time finding my keys, and that’s saying something. Perhaps I never had much patience to begin with, and now that the clock of my life is ticking faster toward its end, it takes so very little to trigger the irritable toe-tapping.

Patience is, of course, a virtue. (My mother used to recite an old ditty—“Patience is a virtue, Possess it if you can, Always in a woman, Seldom in a man”—which my father would repeat back at her in reverse. A lot of toe-tapping, back then.) St. Paul lists patience among the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), the evidence in everyday life of Christ’s indwelling presence. But until this week, I never really considered its relationship to mercy.

Here’s what this week’s way to practice mercy during the Jubilee Year suggests: Instead of losing patience with someone online (or in person), try to hear that person’s fear. Ask God for what Solomon asked for: “an understanding heart.” That stopped my impatient toes in mid-tap.

That fear would be at the root of a person’s irritating, patience-trying behavior should come as no surprise. It’s not just New-Agers who observe that almost every choice in life is between love and fear. It’s been that way since Eden, so why shouldn’t it be true online or on the phone or around the breakfast table on a Wednesday morning in 2016? There is a reason why visitations of the divine always begin with the reassurance “Fear not!” Just this past Sunday, we were treated in the readings to the Risen Christ greeting the Apostles with those words—and to those same Apostles, mere days later, fearing like crazy in a locked upper room.

It’s not always easy to recognize other people’s fears, or even to see that they are afraid, especially when they are being testy or stubborn or outrageous or even dangerous. What on earth would a customer service rep in an Indian call center be afraid of? Or a six-year-old grandson? Or that political candidate? Or the driver who just cut you off?

The answer may lie in considering what you yourself fear. Keeping your job in a shrinking economy. That other kids will laugh at you. That the world might discover you’re a fraud. That you won’t make it to the hospital before your loved one passes away.

Everyone—especially the people we have most difficulty with, I suspect—has a story we would be amazed and humbled by, were we to take time to hear it. The old adage about not knowing someone else until you walk around in his shoes? Nine times out of 10, those shoes are boots, and the feet in them are quivering.

Praying the prayer of King Solomon for “an understanding heart” (1 Kings 3:3-9) is brave and risky. Understanding involves time, listening, silence, and suspension of snap judgment—all rare and devalued gifts in our impatient age. Understanding requires us to assume the best of the other, to see and hear her as God sees and hears—which means not defaulting to WHAT IS THIS WITCH’S PROBLEM ANYWAY? It means slowing or ceasing the nervous toe-tapping long enough not only to hear with our hearts the other’s fears, but also help to bring him or her into the peace of God’s steady, merciful heartbeat.

“You must be really busy; thank you for taking the time to help me out.”

“It’s OK, Lucas, you can hang back, we’ll do this when you’re ready.”

“He (she) wouldn’t be my choice, but piling on doesn’t make this election season any easier.”

“That person’s in a real hurry—St. Christopher, get them where they’re going safely.”

The mercy of understanding isn’t easy, but it’s simple. Going to school with the Immaculate Hearts, we often made use of Corita Kent’s serigraphed slogan: TO UNDERSTAND IS TO STAND UNDER WHICH IS TO LOOK UP TO WHICH IS A GOOD WAY TO UNDERSTAND.

Understanding is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, that essential set of locksmith’s tool that helped the Apostles spring themselves from the room full of fear and reduce other people’s fears to ashes in the fire of love. We have those tools, too, if we but ask for them.

Come, Holy Spirit—and hurry up, because I’m not getting any younger!

Joanne McPortland is a freelance writer living in California.

Practicing MercyYear of Mercy
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