Learning Mercy

By  |  June 14, 2018
Photo by Holly Mindrup on Unsplash Photo by Holly Mindrup on Unsplash

Getting Out of the Way


Though the nature of empathy and compassion is that they are offered unconditionally, my own empathy is frequently extended on specific conditions. Whether I consciously realize it or not, I often dispense it most generously and openly when the occasion matches my ideals. Sometimes, however, an encounter forces me to reevaluate them.

Because I am a human who, like most humans, often does not seek out discomfort, this mostly occurs when my well-worn preconceptions are unexpectedly disrupted by someone with whom I would prefer not to engage. Still, I understand that part of emotional education is choosing not to opt out of these opportunities, to endure the friction of opposition and find what lesson in humility can be extracted. So I try to engage.


Sitting in the Detroit airport, on the final leg of a long trip back to Nashville from overseas, I do not particularly want to engage with anyone. I watch the screens as my flight is delayed half an hour, then an hour, then two hours. After a snack cart is rolled out to placate grumbling passengers with complimentary pretzels and juice, it becomes clear that we will not be departing soon, and people begin to settle in, making uninspired small talk.

“You from Nashville?” A lanky red-headed boy asks me, pointing at my guitar.

Feeling like a stereotype, I admit I do live there, then ask if Nashville is home for him, too.

“Nope, Knoxville. There’s a military base around there, you know.” He gestures toward his digital camouflage backpack.

He looks too young to have graduated high school, so I ask if he’s in an ROTC program, but he tells me he is in the Army, headed to meet with his platoon, and adds, sighing, “But we’ll never get deployed.”

Without thinking, I stammer, “Oh, thank God,” but he shakes his head.

“No, not at all,” he says, not offended, but confused. “I can’t wait to be deployed.”

“Oh,” I say, surprised to find my reflexive relief was not shared.

I shuffle perspectives around to sort out a better response, then backpedal: “I’m sorry…I thought that would be a good thing?”

“Not really,” he frets. “I got into the Army to see some action. Now we’ll never be deployed because things went a little crazy with a guy in our platoon.”

A beat of quiet passes between us, and after receiving no additional prompting, he continues making eager, undeterred conversation.

“So basically what happened is a guy went nuts and waxed a whole village,” he half-chuckles. “I mean, he just started mowing people down.” His coarse, flat words ricochet around my ears as he smiles goofily, firing a pantomime gun with both hands.

Eventually, uncomfortable from the hanging pause and unsure of how to proceed, I blurt that I’m so sorry, that it must have been terrible, and he corrects me with a disarming smile.

“Oh, I wasn’t there, just heard all about it. I've never even left the country.”

Everything he is wearing is too big, his jeans cinched to fit his wiry frame, the digital utility watch too heavy for his wrist. He is towering but gangly and soft-cheeked, like he hasn’t yet grown into his own body. On the other side of me a man in his late twenties smirks with scandalous curiosity and asks him if he “ever gets to shoot any cool big guns.”

Reinvigorated, he gleefully discusses various rifles and heavy artillery which I cannot differentiate, remarking that the tactical practices are just like Call of Duty. He uses the word “bloodbath” more than once.

It is unclear how accurate this person’s description of events is or even if he’s talking about some virtual exercise, but something in me is deeply disturbed by a person speaking so casually about destruction, so flippantly of human life and death. I cringe inwardly, but I hesitate to express my discomfort. Violence as a concept is easy to oppose, but it is harder to condemn human beings tangled in the various machines of violence that permeate our world. I’m unable to clear the hurdle of invalidation it takes to dismiss a person completely; I find myself more dismayed than critical. My opinions about violence, war, and guns, however deeply rooted, are predicated upon second-hand knowledge of others’ experience. I cannot escape the awareness of how little I actually know, and how many times my abstract convictions have been dismantled by the infinite complexity of tangible reality.   

In 2001 I was five years old, and fascinated with war. The entropy in the Middle East dominated public discourse in the codified language of a War on Terror, and, in the milieu of Bush-era politics, global conflict was presented to me as a matter of Good versus Bad, the noble West intervening to prevent utter chaos. And I absorbed it all from the ether, at my inchoate age. Enamored with heroism and vehement in my admiration for the Good Guys, I would spend hours simulating bloody sieges and dramatic rescues from action films, for a time insisting that I wanted to be a soldier, gender norms be damned.

Three years later, I would see an older cousin who toted around Che, the biographical tome about revolutionary Che Guevara, argue about the corruption of our government at Thanksgiving. I would be introduced to the commercialized rebellion of Green Day’s American Idiot by slightly older kids with defiant safety-pin earrings, and my nationalist loyalty would shift to self-proclaimed anarchy. I emulated superficial leftist politics without context or nuance, trading in homegrown patriotism for a t-shirt reading “WWCD—What Would Che Do?”, meaning to align myself with a figurehead of social justice and equality, but having no grasp on what a Marxist might actually do. My schema of the Good Fight had changed from battlefields to protests, but like any child, my zeal lacked moderation or consistency.

What was thrilling to me then about war and revolution was the same thing that now makes all sorts of atrocities defensible to us: the irresistible desire to believe in a singular prevailing justice, a longing for the cinematic, exquisite triumph of righteousness over evil.

By age fifteen, as history curriculums and incendiary hardcore music vied for what would inform my philosophical view of justice, war, and violence, I was also being educated by watching the real lives of my friends unfold.

The people I knew in the military were kids from my neighborhood who leapt toward the promising buoy of free college and useful skills in a sea of uncertain futures after graduation. They were also disproportionately queer women. Neither straight nor male, they were not the archetypal soldier, and they talked little of patriotism, or Islam, or of the political specifics of the war at all. They were teenagers rapidly entering adulthood, fighting to establish stability with what resources were available.

Two of these friends eloped to Canada and then moved into their own place in Memphis. Years away from marriage equality in the United States and with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” still in effect, there was an unspoken irony in the fact that those I knew tasked with serving the American government were those whose existence it would not recognize. Yet despite my burgeoning teenage left-wing ideology, I knew it was tactless to address that to those unconcerned with the luxury of dissent.

Their apartment was decorated with a lone beer pong table and a single Monster Energy Drink promotional poster, but it seemed to me then an enticing achievement of freedom, a rogue state ungoverned by the arbitrary rules of disapproving adults and power structures. On weekends, caribeenered queer women in olive and khaki packed into the barren living room to drink cheap alcohol and smoke menthol cigarettes, their self-sufficiency felt emblematic of survival in an unwelcoming environment.

In my adolescence I confused strength with proximity to strife, and would spend my nights in their company, feigning hardness and attempting to accelerate my own maturity. On one of these evenings, we were interrupted by heavy, persistent knocking at the door. Unnerved, partygoers squinted through the peephole and argued about how to respond. As they bickered, growing rapidly more paranoid, the owner of the apartment suddenly produced a semiautomatic weapon concealed beneath a folded hunting blind and laid it on the couch, while another resident retrieved a handgun from a dresser and tucked it into the waistband of their jeans. When the door was opened, two men, whose most sinister intention was an unsolicited offer to sell us weed, stood naive but innocuous, and noticeably just as spooked by the visibility of a rifle as we were by their unannounced presence. Both parties lingered in the doorway, trying to ease the tension with a balm of apologetic politeness. After a brief exchange of excruciating small talk and a courteous declination, the men left, and my friends fidgeted with the awkward shame of overreaction.

Upon discovering that the threat they perceived as dire was actually minor, such an intense reaction felt morbid and reckless. This was, after all, no potential shoot-out—the men had been harmless, if oblivious to the implications of their actions, and my friends seemed to be equally oblivious to the consequences of introducing a lethal weapon into a situation that did not warrant it. To watch this dangerous miscalculation was to witness how quickly unmediated fear can dispose of our rationality. An incident had escalated from merely sketchy to potentially fatal because the severity of the situation was misjudged. I wondered what had made them instinctively reach for a firearm, why it was even necessary to answer the door if the danger was this severe, why this did not seem like extreme behavior to anyone. It felt indicative of a culture in which violence is normalized, or so anticipated that it seems reasonable to employ violent measures so readily.

I revisit these memories because it is heartbreaking and laughably absurd; it is a darkly comical reminder of how foolish it is to claim we know what we’re doing at any time, and that to be human is to be a child wearing the disguise of maturity, constantly exploring the new and treacherous terrain of living. Listening to a freckled boy who looks too young to drive describe war, I feel the same as I did watching my friends fumble through the harshness of life with parodic grit, assuming a toughness that was expressed as a familiarity with violence.

As an adult, and in the wake of the attacks at Pulse, Parkland High School, and countless other mass shootings, I have a stringent objection to the use of firearms. Though now I often associate my own queer identity with progressive politics, my introductory experience of queerness was not completely aligned with the progressivism that now embodies queerness. The queer women that I knew who stood in front of the Shelby County courthouse in protest of the infamous Defense of Marriage Act were people who owned more than one high-powered rifle and collected knives as a hobby. The most radical thing about them was simply their presence within spheres that excluded them—they were not activists, they were people who wanted to be seen.

Now, I believe that queerness is linked to my politics, and that social advocacy must not be limited to what influences my individual life. My professed politics would make me reluctant to sympathize with someone who supports war or opposes gun control, yet I have had and will continue to have many encounters which refute my idea of what a queer person does, what a soldier is, what a Second Amendment supporter looks like. This does not change my personal opinions about war or gun legislation, but it does remind me that in trying to force definition upon my world, I will be perpetually confounded by anomalies, and that those anomalies will force me to re-evaluate my perception of the standard.

Ruminating on the particularity of queer experience reminds me that there is no uniformity of belief or experience, in the LGBT community or in any other, and that the work of empathy demands unraveling my own presupposed paradigms, forcing myself to see people as a collection of their experiences, not as an embodiment of an ideal or principle. Practicing this within the context of a community I belong to and sympathize with becomes a skill that can be repurposed as empathy for those with whom I lack the ability or desire to understand.

Every day we are asked to live through immense, painful, and causeless things as if it were not an incredible feat. Our mental apparatus, made up of all our ideologies, convictions, superstitions, and personal mythologies, develops out of necessity to make sense of those things that are beyond our capacity to comprehend. Identifying how that apparatus formed in another person cannot nullify pain or negate wrong, it can only give us tools to be more merciful in our interpretations of others.

“Getting Out of the Way” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Julien Baker is a singer-songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. Her first album, Sprained Ankle, was released in 2015 and made several best-of-the-year lists, including that of the A.V. Club and NPR. Her album Turn Out the Lights was released in 2017 by Matador.