The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.
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