Mercy and our present moment

On breaking the cycles of hate that harm our health.

In his play, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare created a character who is entirely justified in seeking revenge. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, has lived his life as the subject of constant anti-Semitic attacks, with one of his main antagonists being Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title. Antonio has called Shylock terrible names, assaulted, and spit on him. So, when Antonio defaults on a loan from Shylock, one for which the merchant offered a pound of his own flesh as security, Shylock is eager to collect, and the audience—having witnessed the many injustices suffered by Shylock throughout the play—can find it hard to blame him. Yet something unexpected happens in the famous scene when Shylock demands what he is owed. It is there one of the characters, Portia, begs Shylock to consider mercy:

“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:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
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.”

It is worth hearing the entire speech, well-performed here by Laura Carmichael. These words in defense of mercy complicate the scene of perhaps would-be vengeance. As anyone familiar with The Merchant of Venice knows, Shylock is justified in his anger. The play is rife with examples of anti-Semitism, including Shylock’s eventual fate (he is ultimately thwarted in his pursuit of revenge and forced to convert to Christianity). This anti-Semitism should be deeply troubling to all readers and playgoers today, especially given the events of the last century, and recent resurfacing of anti-Semitic animus in the US and globally. Yet—and perhaps because of—the context of Shylock’s justified anger, mercy’s appeal still resonates. It is an appeal worth thinking about, in our present-day context, and particularly in the context of health.

It is one of our core roles in public health to address injustices experienced by marginalized groups. These injustices are shaped by the same societal pathologies that birthed Shylock’s misery and desire for vengeance. Scholarship in the area has given us a detailed, excruciating account of exactly how forces like racism, xenophobia, economic inequality, and the marginalization of LGBTQ populations harm health. We know how many sicken and die needlessly due to these forces. One of the most affecting moments of my career was when I worked on quantifying excess deaths attributable to social factors in the US in the year 2000. 245 ,000 deaths were attributable to education, 176 ,000 were attributable to racial segregation, 162, 000 were attributable to low social support, 133, 000 were attributable to individual-level poverty, 119, 000 were attributable to income inequality, and 39, 000 were attributable to area-level poverty. Such findings are not just cause for sadness, they are cause for anger. This anger deepens when we consider how the brunt of poor health has long been borne by certain groups, as a consequence of socioeconomic marginalization. This can spark an urge to dismantle anything that could support such a broken status quo. Any system, political faction, or even person who seems to stand in the way of fixing this injustice becomes not merely an obstacle but an enemy, not something which is mistaken, but something which means harm.

This is how anger makes us think. Or, rather, how anger makes us feel. This feeling has arguably become the animating force behind the public debate in recent years. For a long time, both sides of the cultural and political divide in the US could claim their project to be essentially reformist. From the Great Society to the Reagan Revolution, the central, stated motivation of those looking to change the world through politics was to work within systems to shape a better world. This work could get combative at times, but an effort was made to maintain the appearance, at least, of working towards reform.

This is no longer the case. We now find ourselves navigating a political and cultural space in which the central goal is, to a large extent, punitive calling not for mere progress but for a repudiation of all that has come before, as a balancing the scales. These feelings are understandable, and deeply human. When faced with injustice, our impulse is, reasonably perhaps, to hunker down, to want to attack when we can, to regain the upper hand.

But is this right?

On a personal level, there is a case to be made that, in extending mercy, we do a service for our own wellbeing, by letting go of the anger and grudges that can imprison us. The desire for revenge, even the fervent desire for what we would call justice, can be accompanied by that most corrosive of emotions: resentment. And to resent someone is, as the saying goes, “like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” On a societal level, history provides many examples of how resentment, when it is collectivized, can lead to terrible abuses when one group holds another accountable for past wrongs—real or imagined—and compels them to pay a high price. The societal costs for this can include war, genocide, and cycles of revenge passed down through the generations. Resentment can build to these destructive crescendos, or it can remain internalized, eating only at ourselves. What matters more than the scale of these outcomes is their shared source: an unwillingness to set aside anger and embrace mercy.

When we choose to embrace mercy, we immediately broaden our capacity to build a healthier world. We do this by accessing the compassion that is a companion to mercy and a necessary condition for health. I have often written and spoken about how compassion is fundamental to seeing clearly the conditions that create poor health, and to motivating us to change them.

One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, told in his memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Much of the book centers on his work as a lawyer trying to overturn the conviction of a man on death row. Work to remove the stain on the soul of the country that is capital punishment would not be possible without the mercy that allows us to set aside our initial impulse to condemn people who may well have committed terrible acts. The man Stevenson helped, Walter McMillian, was wrongfully convicted, but this is, to an extent, immaterial where mercy is concerned. As seen with Shylock, the condemnation which mercy can temper is, as often as not, legitimate. That is why mercy is so powerful, and so necessary for informing compassion. Stevenson’s mercy birthed a compassion which led him to addresses the broader challenge of mass incarceration in the US and the injustices that shape it. Who knows what new vistas compassion might bring into view for us, once mercy helps clear away the resentments that can cloud our vision?

Finally, mercy links to the fundamental goal of public health. Our aim is to create a healthier world, so that everyone can live up to their full human potential, to flourish and to thrive. This suggests that we have an imperative to make sure everyone has access to a world free from preventable harm, so that all can be maximally healthy. Implicit in this is that we do not take actions that perpetuate cycles of anger, retribution, and hate. This does not mean denying the validity of anger, and the many ways it can be justified, even necessary. It means acknowledging anger while understanding we live in the present, in a complex, messy, very human world. In such a world, the effects of anger simply cannot be allowed to unfold indefinitely in all directions, if we are to make the world a place where we can all be healthy. Ultimately, mercy is not only the right course to take, it is the only course that will keep us from societal fracture, by bridging divides and ending the cycles of hate that have already done much harm.

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Also.

In this week’s The Turning Point, Michael Stein and I discuss whose decision it should be to act during a moment like COVID-19, making an argument for the ineluctable role of the public sector in these moments.