President Brian Rosenberg delivered the following remarks to the Class of 2019 at Commencement on May 18, 2019.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face:
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress.
A few of you might recognize those passages as coming from two poems by the brilliant and unquestionably odd William Blake, the first from his Songs of Innocence and the second from his Songs of Experience, published in 1789 and 1794, respectively. Like so much in those two works, the observations are both diametrically opposed and equally true. It all depends on one’s perspective. Human beings can be loving and merciful; they can also be cruel and terrifying. And I don’t only mean different groups of human beings: I also mean that the same people—the same person—can be both of those things. This is one of the great and frustrating mysteries of human nature.
Do mercy, pity, peace, and love in the end more fully define us than cruelty, jealousy, terror, and secrecy? History does not here provide much reassurance, but we can of course try, each in our own lives, to make the answer to that question “yes.”
Today, as you prepare to leave Macalester, I thought I might spend a moment on one of the qualities identified by Blake, the quality of mercy. Perhaps I have been inspired by the groundbreaking work of our commencement speaker on the inequities in our criminal justice system, where mercy is very selectively extended. Perhaps I am simply responding to what I see every day in our beautiful yet broken world.
What is mercy? It is defined as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” It is the decision, when offered the opportunity and even the justification to inflict pain, not to do so, and maybe even to offer in its place an embrace or a word of comfort.
We are not at this moment living in a world in which mercy is regularly apparent: in our public policies, in our public discourse, on many of our college campuses, and especially within the sprawling universe of social media, which strikes me as relentlessly and overwhelmingly merciless. Congress abolished the use of the pillory as a form of public shaming in 1839, considering it “cruel and unusual punishment.” Today we are more efficient: we have Twitter.
Let me be clear: mercy is not the same thing as indifference or lack of principle. It is not an unwillingness to hold people accountable for hurtful actions or words or a determination to ignore wrongdoing. It does not obviate the need for punishment. One can condemn what is wrong, one can do all in one’s power to prevent or correct what is wrong, yet one can still stop short of inflicting upon the wrongdoer the maximum amount of pain. That is mercy, and I would suggest that it needs more often to be part of our response to the failures of our fellow human beings.
It is possible to be both just and merciful.
We need to acknowledge, too, that with mercy comes a certain amount of risk. With most of our more admirable qualities—love, empathy, patience—comes risk. It is safer to lock someone away, to cast someone out, to leave someone helpless on the ground, than to extend a hand and try to lift someone up. But these admirable qualities also carry the possibility of rewards that far transcend anything that will be born of harshness and anger.
It is possible to be both strong and merciful. Those who think that the exercise of power over the most vulnerable makes them strong, who punish because they can, are merely revealing their own weakness.
So to our graduating seniors I offer this simple piece of advice: be merciful, to others and, especially, to yourselves. I have found that even those who are quick to be merciful to people around them are slow to extend that same quality to themselves. We are all imperfect; we all make mistakes, fail to live up to our best selves, do things of which we are ashamed. We are all, from time to time, needlessly cruel. Extend to yourselves the forgiveness and the mercy that you attempt, at your best moments, to extend to others.
You all hold yourselves to such high standards, and for that we admire and honor you. But we also worry about you, because high standards cannot always be met, and learning to accept that is both difficult and necessary.
I say this as someone who, many decades further along than all of you, has yet fully to absorb this truth.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that
Shakespeare, of course. Remember that both the granter and the recipient of mercy are blessed. Show mercy to yourselves, and be doubly blessed.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.
August 2 2019Back to top