I named my blog after something Portia says to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
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.
Here we all are, stuck in that "place beneath." There's a lot going on down here, and mercy does not drop upon us in abundance, though it does sprinkle down from time to time.
I will muse here on mercy, on the lack thereof, and on how I see words within this greater idea of mercy.
I'm a writer, and I use a laptop to write. I write in cafes often. I find I need to get out of the house to think. I have a restless muse, I suppose. I used to like to go to cafes by myself and take a book with me. I often saw others doing the same thing. Now, of course, people by themselves almost always have their noses buried in a laptop or a smartphone. I am guilty, too. I take my laptop with me to these cafes, of course. Because I am writing. But even though I am writing (doing something productive, in my mind) I am aware of the way this near-constant interaction with an electronic device is affecting the way I think. It's doing strange things to me and to my brain.
Nicholas Carr wrote about the internet's affects on the brain and the attention span in The Atlantic a couple of years ago. His article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," reaffirms for me some of the things that have been worrying me: that our attention spans are being shortened by technology and deep thinking is becoming rarer for too many of us. Reading long form pieces is a kind of deep thinking. This reduction in attention span is also behind the demise of so many bookstores and possibly of books themselves, I imagine. I mean, it's not just the ease of ordering a book online that's killing bookstores. It's also the fact that reading a book is a long, leisurely process, and the immediacy of the internet is making those leisurely activities less desirable to people.
But what does this mean for us as a civilzation, and how does this loss of the leisurely deep inner experience affect our own qualities of mercy? Mercy, in addition to qualities of compassion or lenience, can be defined as forebearance, particularly toward an offender, or one who is subject to our power. How important is the written word, in long form, to our ability to forebear? Has our embracing of the immediacy of technology caused us to become more impatient with others? I see impatience in the rejection of unions by so many Americans. And the anger being turned toward teachers. And the blame being placed on people in foreclosure for "buying houses they couldn't afford." And the vitriol in American politics. There's a lot going on in the place beneath. But I see precious little mercy.
I guess I am arguing that if more Americans turned off the phones and sat down with a book, they might find this quality of mercy creeping back into their consciousness. It might even start to fall down on us all, like a gentle rain.
Read, for instance, Moby-Dick and ask yourself what Ishmael's take on mercy might have been. Or settle in with The Merchant of Venice and see what else Portia has to say on the topic. Turn off the electrical signals from the outside world, and let the leisurely written word, not the coded language of text messages and emails, cause the synapses to fire in your brain. See what happens.
Or am I preaching to the choir?