Anne Lamott has written a book about mercy, which I am now going to mercilessly review. Consider yourself warned.
Lamott is classified by some as writing in the genre of literary particularism. The idea is that the details inside each book should matter more than whatever connections can be made to other books, that each situation can be taken independently and in isolation as, um, situational. It’s not a very well defined genre, but the gist is that it has allowed Lamott to write another book on single motherhood or alcoholism or religion or whatever other broad idea strikes her through the insights uniquely afforded by her own experience and its particulars. To appreciate the author’s particulars requires some degree of empathy on the part of the reader, who may not be parenting alone or going to AA meetings or showing up at church.
The minute that reader cross-applies some understandings from another work of art or channels Lamott’s words into their own life’s parallels, the particularism fuzzes and fades away, perhaps of necessity. A universally appreciated book is a bestselling book, after all.
Moral philosophy has a much more emphatic and clear cut notion of particularism. Ethical concepts such as “love” or “mercy” are thick with particularity. In short, there’s no universal way to determine how to act upon these concepts. Particularity is different from relativism to the extent that it is more moderate; it suggests that by examining the details of a given situation we can accommodate a variety of values for a generic principle, like mercy. We could even go so far as to begin grouping these situations into appropriate categories of response.
Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway contends that mercy ought to be applied in 100 percent of the cases where it is possible to do so. Situationally, she is happy to admit that it may not always be possible to apply mercy as an ethical principle (because each and every one of us is simply an awful, morally ugly person sometimes).
This willingness to concede the essential impossibility of perfect mercy is one of Lamott’s best assets for two reasons. Most obviously, it enacts the very virtue she prescribes by letting us all off the hook a little bit for our inability to follow through with her suggestion of continually being merciful. It performatively makes her case because we are glad that her suggested diet of ethical principles is not too strict.
Secondarily, it harbors an ideological permissiveness that is a trademark of her tone. Lamott lives in the San Francisco Bay area (and I hope you will unpack all the ugliness sliding around under my reportage of that fact and the place where I chose to insert it in this review). Or, let me be clear: Lamott writes in that relatively privileged mode of white women trying to better themselves, trying to work past the valid struggles they have encountered in their often invalidly smallish bubble.
She is a poet whose flow of language is operating under the aegis of narrative nonfiction, with the result that her work’s primary effect is to suck readers into her sense of pathos. She appeals to our finest feelings. Particularism is a style that ultimately succeeds in putting sentimentality within easy reach. One cannot argue with emotional truths; when Lamott describes how she felt joy at someone else’s misery, a reader has no choice but to accept her feelings at face value.
The beauty of arguments based on pathos is that there’s really no counter-factual available to refute them. But the author’s reliance on the particularities of her pathos—though charming and reassuring and noble and fun—also hobble her anecdotal considerations and prevent them from rising to the level of a coherent moral position.
Let’s first define “mercy” as the essential term of art in this debate. The author is correct to begin here. She cites the Old Testament prophet Micah, who said, “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (4), in order to set forth the basis for a purposeful life. From a rhetorical perspective, we can say that these three virtues correspond to the three forms of appeal—mercy is pathos (argument by feeling), humility is ethos (argument by character), and justice is logos (argument by reasoning). Although we access mercy as a kind of pathos, Lamott’s definition further breaks mercy into three categories, “kindness, compassion, forgiveness” (5).
Kindness is a generosity of service toward others; often it is born on the wings of compassion, a feeling of sympathy or empathy toward the plight of another. Still, kindness travels the road of ethos perhaps more readily than the road of pathos. Because kindness is an act rather than a feeling, it feeds other people’s perceptions of us and results in a sense of our character. Forgiveness may also be born of compassion, but I would argue that forgiveness falls conceptually under logos because it is neither an act nor a feeling. To forgive is to judge—or even if it is a letting go of judgment, that is still a matter for logos.
Most people would agree that justice is a situational enterprise. In passing judgment, we always consider the circumstances. This would seem to be in line with Lamott’s affinity for literary particularism, but her reliance on poetic sentiment too frequently glosses the empirical dimension of moral particularism. After an initial foray into the definition of mercy, she waves away the distinctions between kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in order to continually err on the more vague side of her own encounters with mercy. Her tendency to smooth experiences into parables and allegories, the mythic treatment of her self-improvements and predictable lapses, the strings of shiny adjectives that point to picturesque nouns, all serve to hide sets of situations that her merciful intention is not prepared to adequately address.
Many of her anecdotes are strawperson fallacies, presenting one-off situations that do not translate into the practical everyday merciful living that the book asks us to cultivate. There’s the story of the Senegalese women stuck in a desert without water, who had visions of a massive underground lake that eventually was revealed by aid workers to actually exist. Mercy here belongs to the men who finally stopped dismissing the women’s visions, and perhaps to the aid workers who dug the lake.
There’s the congregation who forgave the shooter in their Charleston church or survivors of war crimes testifying before tribunals in front of their oppressors. I think human beings can easily find their way to mercy in the face of massive tragedy. We call these triumphs of the human spirit; they strike us singularly at our core.
But these moments of profundity do not translate into the banality of daily evils we inflict upon each other.
“Polite inclusion is the gateway drug to mercy,” Lamott offers (82). I suppose I’ll just be grateful to my conservative family for finally agreeing to allow my wife to show up at holiday dinners so that we can suffer severe awkwardness for a few hours together. Or we can go bigger, more impersonal on the merits of incrementalism: the now-defunct Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy from the President Clinton era, Jim Crow’s separate but equal policies. Were these polite inclusions on the right road to salvation? How long ought we to wait to arrive at genuine mercy? She argues that instead of failing and then trying harder, we should simply resist less. Sorry, but that’s too close to the complicity of the good German for my comfort.
Here’s another daily question hanging over the globe lately, and particularly over our collective American consciousness: ought we to forgive Donald Trump? Ought we to treat him mercifully as impeachment increasingly becomes actionable? Can we show him compassion and still seek justice? Or, if you’re one of those, go ahead and make the question more hypothetically about Hillary Clinton. Let’s leave that question to hang—pun intended. As Lamott concedes, “God doesn’t give us answers. God gives us grace and mercy. […] Left to my own devices, I would prefer answers” (104). To fill the gap she offers up the wisdom of Krishnamurti, the famed Indian spiritual teacher who said his secret was that, “I don’t care what happens.” Lamott retorts, “I desperately want to stop minding so much about other people, life, and myself,” but it is so very hard (126-7).
I have no positive feelings attached to the prospect of “resist less” or “stop minding”. I’m an opinion writer, after all. It’s my calling to care deeply about things that I suppose are technically none of my business. Again, Lamott concedes, “I hate this, but in judgment’s defense, it’s also an indication that I have a brain” (129). I’m paid to pass judgment not only as a journalist, but also as a teacher. There are an uncountable number of anecdotes I can give—at least one for each kid that has passed through my classroom during more than a decade of teaching high school English—regarding the variety of ways I’ve considered to what extent it is appropriate to be merciful.
Here’s a relatively easy one: do I round up that 69.4 percent to a passing grade at the end of the semester, or not? More complex: do I round it up for both the wealthy lacrosse team captain who will be an alumni legacy admit at an Ivy League school, as well as the student who speaks a foreign language at home while his mother works two jobs to pay for the summer school classes he needs to attend to keep from from falling behind? Still more complex: the rich kid’s parents just told him two weeks ago that they are getting a divorce, and the immigrant kid makes a good living dealing drugs during study hall.
The profession of teaching has taught me that Lamott’s view of merciful action is impractical and improper. She thinks that “over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us on through” (138). I tend to err on the side of believing there is no such thing as a free lunch. What is merciful is not always just. What is just is not always compassionate. Justice can be very unkind.
Lamott glosses logical contradictions by seeming to embrace the inevitability of hypocrisy. She is even charmed by it. It’s so cute how humanity struggles to do the right thing so often. And yet, we must “hallelujah anyway”. We must keeping working on being better people—more just, more merciful, more humble—anyway. I agree completely with the action suggested by her conclusion, but I disagree with these modes and means by which she argues it.
Considering these particulars, would the most merciful thing simply have been to write a glowing review tightly focused on the point on which we agree? Or is it more merciful to push Lamott to do better in her forms of argument, seeing as how there’s a strong probability that Hallelujah Anyway is unlikely to garner any widely read negative reviews? Or it is more merciful to just not have written a review at all?
Not that I expect her to read this, but if she does, perhaps I’m just giving Lamott an opportunity to work on her own instincts toward mercy. How she processes her feelings about this criticism may offer a chance for personal growth. In describing a personal rivalry she quietly built up inside herself with regard to another unnamed writer, she says she understood well how “a blend of damage, obsessiveness, envy, and empathy was an occupational requirement for writers. Live by the sword, die by the sword” (137). Of my sword I shall make mercy? Ugh.
Probably I’m not cut out to give opinions on contemporary spiritual teachers like Lamott. Good for her for feeling the feels and trying to get them on paper. I lack the pathos for it, or at least pathos lacks the credibility for it with me. Pathos may be a reason to act, but it never builds a strong argument because at a minimum it defies intellectual rigor and sometimes even basic fairness. It rarely transfers easily from situation to situation. Mercy must be more than what your heart tells you to do. Though I am happy to agree that the perfect is the enemy of the good, pathos is not necessarily its most natural ally. But I can hallelujah anyway.
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