One of the most famous verses in modern English poetry is this one from Philip Larkin’s profane poem, “This Be The Verse”:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
This is true, to a point (the first two lines, I mean). Can anyone doubt it?
But it’s much less appreciated, I think, that man also hands on mercy to man — a fact that I’ve seen in abundance these past three weeks, since the publication of Little Way. Every day — every single day — someone writes me to tell me how the book changed their lives, or at least their worldview. Over the weekend, a woman wrote to tell me that she never had a lot of regard for her brother, who stayed close to home to care for their sickly father, but after reading the book, she’s begun to see him and his service in a new and more appreciative light. She just wrote to say thank you.
I get this stuff all the time.
Think of the chain of causation here. The reason there’s a book at all is because a Starhill woman named Susan Wymore Harvey troubled herself to light the candles on the graves at the Starhill cemetery on Christmas Eve, 2011, because she learned that my mother was too overwhelmed by grief to carry out that ritual, which she and Ruthie did every Christmas Eve. When I found out about it, I blogged it, and because I blogged it, David Brooks read it and wrote a NYT column about it. And because David wrote a column about it, a publisher hired me to write a book about my sister, this town, and its mercies — a book that is spreading light and healing far and wide.
It all started with that one act of mercy, one neighbor to another, in a tiny country cemetery in the middle of nowhere. And who knows where it will end up?
You might also say, if you want to get really philosophical about it, that it started in part with an act of traumatic misery-giving: the bullying on the beach trip that imparted in me the urgent need to run away from this place. If not for that, I probably would have left anyway, but wouldn’t have had the ache in my heart for a home that could not be home, and I certainly wouldn’t have experienced the conversion of my heart that came about when we came down for Ruthie’s funeral — a conversion that made for a good book.
So you never know. Man does hand down misery to man, but he also hands down mercy. I’ve more or less operated as if my task as a journalist is to seek justice — that is, to right the wrongs of the world. I wonder now if my task is to seek mercy — that is, to tell stories of people who, against all odds, hand down mercy to their fellow man. I don’t wonder, I know, that my task as a husband, a father, a friend, a neighbor, and a Christian, is to be merciful. This does not come easy to me, but somehow, thinking about Ruthie and the way her story is changing lives makes it easier.
And to think too about how one simple act of mercy — Susan Wymore’s candles — can become something far greater than we can imagine, is to see mercy not as a duty, but as an opportunity, indeed an adventure. Hey, you never know…