Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway. Redescovering Mercy
Published 2017 by Riverhead Books, 176p
I haven’t completely resonated with Hallelujah Anyway as I don’t consider myself a very religious person and the book mixes the writer’s personal experiences with stories from the Bible but Anne Lamott is such a warm, honest and intelligent writer that I simply wanted to know more and to listen to everything she has to say. She is like a mother or like an older friend that opens her heart and shares her life with you, honestly describing her struggles and letting you know that there is always hope.
She spent her adult life trying to stay sober, to build up a healthy, trustful relationship with her son, to find her voice and to embrace her vulnerabilities. While on this long and complicated journey she realized that the priority should be validating herself as a person, by accepting that there is no such thing as perfection and by learning to respect and appreciate herself. She found support in the Christian church and understood that mercy was what she needed. Lamott confers the word a more complex definition that it was given in the Bible, considering mercy the translation of a beautiful, kind soul.
Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. Charge it to our heads and not our hearts, as the elders in black churches have long said.
Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.
Lamott reminds us that we come into this world with mercy for everything but because of our fears and traumas we change and forget to show kindness.
My parents, teachers and the culture I grew up in showed me a drawer in which to stuff my merciful nature because mercy made me look vulnerable and foolish, and it made me less productive… So I put it away, and I got it out only when it wouldn’t threaten my grades, my safety, my parents’ self-esteem, my child’s life or mine.
It is beautiful how she shares personal stories, with honesty, humour and wisdom, to explain how mercy could help in difficult times and restore harmony and happiness. Lamott speaks about traumas in her childhood, the loss of beloved friends, the unhappiness she experienced after some judgmental public comments she made, a travel in Japan, to show the power of mercy.
My older brother used to hit me pretty hard and get sent to his room without dinner. But I’d sneak him oranges later, Lamott confesses.
Mercy begins with saying hello, making eye contact and letting others go; it is kindness, truth and devotion.
This is largely what we know of mercy – noticing, caring, accepting, helping, not running away.
The book is full of definitions for mercy; and also of examples (from the Bible or from the author’s own life) that all illustrate Lamott’s wisdom and lucidity; her courage to speak so open is to be appreciated.
I’ve lived through times when a connected group of humans in grief and shock stayed together as things unscrolled, when a person was dying too young, or after. What could we do? We showed up. When our best friends’ teenagers disappeared, when their fathers lost their minds or their babies or mates were in the ICU. We lay beside them in bed and held them in our arms. We brought the bereaved a sandwich. We let them vent, maybe watched a little TV together. We offered our presence, our warm bodies, and the willingness to feel like shit with them. One even bigger gift: no snappy answers. We could nod, sigh, cry with them; maybe go to a park. Against all odds, these things work, however imperfectly, when a closed system breaks open and turmoil ensues: this collective, imperfect, hesitant help is another kind of miracle.
Complement Hallelujah Anyway with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a fascinating book about writing and life and then watch her 2017 TED talk, a witty speech on 12 truths she learned from life and writing: