According to Kabbalah, the three primary human emotions are kindness, sternness and mercy. Each of these respective emotions can be aroused through a particular type of thinking: Kindness toward another is aroused by contemplating the good qualities that the other possesses, as well as the good that they have done for others; sternness toward them is ignited by contemplating their negative traits, and the harm they have caused others; while mercy is evoked by imagining oneself in the position of a person who is suffering in some way.
There is a major difference between mercy and the other two emotions in terms of the perspective of the other which evokes them. Both kindness and sternness stem from viewing the other as being entirely separate and distinct from the self, while mercy involves identifying with the other’s being, attempting to feel what it would be like to be in their shoes.
And herein lays the inner connection between mercy and a womb. A womb enables a mother to accommodate another person within her own body. Similarly, mercy allows a person to accommodate another person within his own soul.
However, mercy is not a simple quality; there are various types of mercy, each with a corresponding mode of thinking which triggers it. For instance, Mercy can be evoked through ascent or descent, and through closeness or distance. Let us explore each of these triggers of mercy individually.
In the Talmud a controversy exists over the nature of divine mercy. One Rabbi maintains that divine mercy is characterised by ascent, drawing support from the verse, “He lifts iniquity”. Another Rabbi maintains that it is characterised by descent, bringing proof from the verse, “he thwarts iniquity” How can we reconcile these two opinions/ verses? Furthermore, how can spatial directions apply to the spiritual quality of mercy?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains how divine mercy is evoked in one of two general ways. When G-d observes people sinning He either shifts the blame from the people onto their surroundings, holding it primarily responsible for negatively influencing the people and enticing them to transgress, or He shifts the blame onto Himself, where He states, If I wanted to I could have revealed Myself to them and prevented them from transgression, yet I did not. Thus I am partially responsible for there inappropriate behaviour.” In these two ways G-d extenuates the misbehaviour and tempers His harshness toward the people.
In the former case, where G-d shifts the blame onto the environment, He is considered to be lowering the sins from the people onto their surroundings and thereby feeling mercy – such mercy is thus associated with descent. In the latter case, where G-d shifts the blame onto Himself, He is considered to be lifting the Sins from the people onto His own shoulders, and thus arousing mercy upon them – such mercy is thus associated with ascent.
This explanation easily resolves the abovementioned Talmudic controversy. For it reveals that both types of mercy exist, and thus there is no real contradiction between the two mentioned Talmudic opinions; each Rabbi is merely emphasising one particular type of mercy.
These two modes of thinking can easily be used in our daily life to temper our bitter feelings toward others so that we can maintain peaceful relations with people.For example, imagine you are a manager of a lending library. Unfortunately, as every manager knows, people are often late at returning borrowed books, sometimes very late. It may be difficult for you to prevent yourself from becoming upset with borrowers, after all they are abusing the library’s facilities and deny other borrowers access to books for which they pay a membership to borrow. Furthermore the library is easily accessed and the books can be dropped off in a chute twenty four hours a day, what excuse could these people possibly have? If you think in this manner, you will probably explode with rage at the next late borrower you encounter; an approach bound to cause more harm than good to all the people involved. How can you temper your harsh feelings so that you can continue to view the borrowers favourably and allow yourself to deal with the situation more constructively and diplomatically?
One way would be to deliberately draw upon the two modes of merciful thinking described above. You could either contemplate how many commitments the average person has in their life, commitments to a spouse, to children, work, personal health, parents, friends, etc, not to mention the various stressors that can cause a person to become disoriented or preoccupied with them. Through this one can come to realize how easy it can be for people to forget about returning books that they have borrowed, and thus to be merciful toward them. This is the descending approach where one partially shifts the blame from the person onto his circumstances.
Alternatively, one could contemplate how a more effective library system could minimize the late return of books. Perhaps if I sent reminder emails to borrowers reminding them of the overdue books, or if I placed the due date on the outside cover of the book rather than on the inside then people would notice it more, and possibly if I increased the fine for late returns, that would encourage people to return the books on time. I guess I am partly to blame for their lateness since I have not managed to implement these devices. This is the ascending approach, where one partially shifts the blame from the person onto oneself.
In some situations the descending approach is more effective because it is obvious that the person’s circumstances are truly difficult; while in other situations the ascending approach is more effective because it may be clear that you really may be partially at fault for another person’s errors or shortcomings.
Sometimes, it is difficult to find any extenuating circumstances and thus the ascending approach will be more effective, such as when the borrower, for instance, is known to have much time on his hands, few responsibilities, and lives in close proximity to the library; while at other times, especially when the library manager has gone to great lengths to ensure that books are returned on time, the descending approach will be more effective.
Of course, both approaches can be used in combination when necessary, especially when neither approach is strong enough on its own. Remember, these techniques do not entail a departure from reality; on the contrary, they are intended to make a person aware of the true reality, a more balanced perspective of the other and the situation at hand. Thus one is not to fabricate far- fetched, illogical, extenuating circumstances for people. Rather one should be very realistic about the circumstances and only identify those extenuating factors that are really present.
The intention in this warning is not merely to prevent people from accustoming themselves to reality distortion, which can easily spill over into other areas of their lives, but also to make the mercy evoking contemplations more effective. For if you try to trick yourself into believing that extenuating circumstances exist when clearly they do not – at least not the far- fetched ones that you have fabricated – then any mercy that is aroused will be superficial and largely pretend. If however, you can identify real extenuating factors, the mercy aroused will be deeper and real. We are not playing games with our minds in order to keep our blood pressure down; we are attempting to genuinely empathize with other people.
It is also essential to note that the arousal of mercy is not intended to preclude dealing with the situation, but merely precedes dealing with it. The library manager is not to completely ignore the late return of books because he feels merciful toward the borrowers; on the contrary, he would negligent and irresponsible if he was to do so. Rather, it is on account of his merciful attitude that he can deal with the situation in the most effective manner; with rationale, diplomacy, and the implementation of effective strategies. In other words: mercy should not prevent one from dealing with a situation; it should prepare one to deal with it.
Now that we have explored ascending and descending triggers of mercy let us focus on mercy aroused through closeness and distance.
When a person is empathetic, that is sensitive to, and capable of identifying with another person’s emotional state, he tends to be strongly affected by the other’s communications. When he is listening to another excitedly describing the wonderful trip that they recently returned from, he will himself feel excited and joyful. Similarly, when he hears another describing a predicament in which they find themselves or the pain that they are feeling, he will himself experience their sorrow and pain, and he will probably lose sleep over it. His own intimate sense of the other’s discomfort will trigger his mercy toward them. This is mercy aroused by ‘closeness’.
However, if a person lacks this ability to empathize with another, even if he fully understands the difficult situation that another is in, he will not feel mercy toward them. For his heart is not touched by his understanding of the situation; not stirred by its implications. The other’s suffering remains distant from him and he remains mostly untouched by it.
Mercy aroused by a sense of distance works differently. If a person derives immense pleasure or happiness from any given aspect of their life they can come to feel mercy upon one who lacks that particular thing, and in particular toward one who is in the opposite state. For instance, a person naturally has immense pleasure in the ability to see. Though many people take it for granted, seeing offers the most stimulating experiences: colours, forms, familiar faces, books, films, and nature, and in the richest and most vivid ways. Therefore, when many people encounter a blind individual, who they imagine is lacking this particular capacity and all the immeasurable good that comes with it, they are automatically aroused with mercy toward him.
This latter type of mercy is not evoked by coming close and listening to the blind person tell of his difficulties being visually impaired, rather it is evoked on account of the sense that the blind person is in the opposite state from what makes you personally happy and greatly enhances to your quality of living. It is a sense of ‘distance’ between yourself and the other that serves to trigger the mercy.
Of the differences between these two types of mercy are the specificity/generality, as well as the magnitude of the mercy aroused. In mercy triggered by closeness the flow of mercy is directed specifically toward the individual who one has come to spend time with, and flows in proportion to the suffering described by that individual. In contrast, mercy triggered by distance tends to flow toward all people who are perceived as ‘distant’, and often in much greater measure than the particular individual is suffering. For example, even though a particular blind person, perhaps one blind from birth, may not experience major suffering on account of his lack of sight, the flow of mercy aroused toward him on account of ‘distance’ may still be abound. This occurs because the mercy is not evoked by closely empathizing with the blind individual’s subjective experience, but by imagining the absence - and worse, the opposite – of what makes oneself truly happy.
Hence, each form of mercy has its advantage and disadvantage: Mercy based on closeness allows one to fine tune one’s care for the other since it offers one a close range and highly specific experience of the others angst and difficulties. However, closeness will note evoke feelings of mercy toward a person if they do not express any discomfort or distress on account of their predicament.
In contrast, mercy based on distance, allows one to feel mercy for people who don’t even realize that they are lacking something that would immeasurably enhance their quality of life, since the mercy flows on account of comparing another person’s state to one’s own rather than discerning their situation independently and directly. However, mercy on account of distance tends to produce a general feeling toward another that is not as tailored to the others true state and needs.