By the time we arrived at the wedding reception, the room was overflowing with people we didn’t know. Ordinarily Christian and I are both highly functional introverts, able to fake it so long as we’re together and/or we know our role in a given situation. We often bicker at home about who has to call the plumber/pastor/bus company/playdate-parent. Or approach sales associates for help in the store. And because he has to put himself forward so much at work, it’s usually me who has to take point at other times.
But on this night, we both felt uncomfortable. We really didn’t know anyone except the bride and the groom, and they, of course, had many, many people to talk to, not just us.
We surveyed the room, and we realized: There was no place left for a family of six to sit together.
Then, with relief, we realized there was a back room, and mercifully, it was almost empty. We settled in at a gorgeous lacquered wood table that could seat ten or twelve. Slowly, the room filled up around us. Nicholas found a couch and a couple of boys his age. Michael went, as he is wont to do, with his big brother. We struck up a conversation with another family who sat down beside us. And poor Alex sat at the table with his parents, looking every inch the miserable introvert.
But Julianna? By the time the guitar-violin duo started playing on the other side of the room, an hour later, Julianna had already made friends with a couple babies and started building her usual fan-club-on-the-go. At the sound of music, she grabbed the first hand she could find and gave them no choice but to dance with her. And so it went for the next twenty minutes. I mean…two hours.
My daughter is an extrovert in a family full of introverts.
I leaned over to Alex. “Do you ever envy her?” I said. “How easy it is for her to interact with people?”
His lips twisted in that trying-not-to-smile smile. “Sometimes.”
What does this have to do with mercy?
The thing is, so much of what gets in the way of my attempts to live out mercy is this deep-seated discomfort with reaching out. I’m so bad with names and faces, it’s reached the level of a full-on psychological hangup. I seriously have to interact with people five times before I put it together permanently. And Christian and I have lived so much of our lives smack dab in the eye of our community. Even our engagement was public. I’m forever running into people who light up and wave at me, and I have no earthly idea who they are. It’s not a big deal if they just smile and greet me and move on, but when they start asking questions about my family, I’m in agony, because it seems clear I’m supposed to know who they are, and I ought to be asking questions in kind, and I don’t know what to ask!
To put it simply: if mercy is about heart to heart connection with everyone you come into contact with, I suck at it.
That whole evening, I watched Julianna fling herself into the void with reckless, joyous abandon. She doesn’t worry about conventions or scruples. She doesn’t worry about the fact that she doesn’t know somebody’s name—she just goes, “Oh! Hi! What’s your name?” (When I am ninety, I will still hear the characteristic, charismatic way she inflects those words, and I believe it will still break my heart with joy just as it does now.)
Mercy is her homeland. Last night, when Nicholas had a drama moment involving a guest, the guest got sent to sit down for a few minutes. Of course, all the boys went along to keep him company. (Solidarity, man. Solidarity.)
Then, of course, we grownups got wrapped up in our conversation and forgot to release him. It was Julianna who came over to us and tugged at our proverbial arms and reminded us that the boys had all been in time out long enough, thank you very much. It was hysterically funny, and such a moment to see that mercy is who she is.
And it has nothing to do with great deeds, political statements or what you do or don’t give to the poor. It has to do with loving people, wholeheartedly, for whatever fraction of a moment she’s sharing a space with them. It’s about deep empathy with everyone she meets, and not one inhibition about doing something about it.
This is a gift children have that adults do not, because they lack the sophisticated worldly understanding that impedes us. But it is also a gift of her extra chromosome: Her disability places her outside the mainstream. It releases her from the straitjacket of convention and expectation under which the rest of us labor to live our lives.
And that gift is one that stretches my mind and my heart as well. It allows me to recognize how simple mercy really can be, how uncomplicated by practicalities. Even if it is never a brand of mercy that I am capable of emulating myself, it nonetheless helps me understand better what the heart of God looks like, and why mercy is the expression of agape in this broken world.
(For other Mercy on a Monday posts, click here.)