Becoming merciful-A psycho-spiritual perspective
The term ‘mercy’, can be understood as an attitude of loving kindness or compassion. All those positive experiences, we have been through during the course of our life that contributed to the kind of person that we are today could be attributed to the acts of mercy, loving kindness or compassion. We realize that the acts of mercy and compassion illustrated in the biographies of saints and sages are in fact other-oriented acts. In this article, this other-orientedness and the acts of mercy are looked at from the perspective of early attachment experience and positive emotions. It also highlights how insecure attachment experiences can inhibit one’s potential to be positive, merciful or empathic.
Early attachment and development of merciful attitude
Psychologists like Bowlby and Ainsworth who studied the infant’s early relationship with the primary caretaker, mother in particular, have given much emphasis on the secure or safe relationship experience of infant with its mother and the mental representations of its positive experiences of being cared, loved, wanted, and supported. They have explained in their theory on ‘attachment’ how these experiences play major role in the later development of one’s personality.
During the developmental years, particularly during childhood, children who received kindness, gentleness, warmth and compassion compared with some of those less fortunate ones, are likely to be more confident, secure, happier and less vulnerable to physical and mental health issues; they are also more caring and respectful of others. When they receive or given such experiences, they are left with a feeling of safety, comfort and security and a perception about others as helpful, merciful and kind rather than harmful. Feeling confident and safe in the environment one lives can improve one’s immune system and reduce the levels of stress.
Merciful acts and positive emotions
We all conform to the well-known fact that experience of positive emotions serve as markers of optimal well-being. As humans we feel safe when we have created positive feelings about us in the minds of people we relate with and that they care about us. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, certain discrete positive emotions—including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love, help people build their enduring personal resources, such as physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources. For instance we are able to extend our joy by creating the urge to play, push the limits, and be creative. Experientially distinct positive emotion like interest for instance, can be broadened by creating the urge to explore, taking in new information and experiences, and expand the experience of one’s self in the process. Love, conceptualized as an amalgam of distinct positive emotions (e.g., joy, interest, contentment) experienced within contexts of safe, close relationships broadens by creating recurring cycles of urges to play with, explore, and savor experiences with loved ones.
Positive emotions broaden the scopes of attention, cognition, and action and that they build physical, intellectual, and social resources. Happiness is a subjective experience with positive meaning which is devoid of negative emotions. People experiencing positive affect show patterns of thought that are notably unusual, flexible, integrative, open to information and efficient.
One of the major difficulties for individuals, particularly children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds is their inability to feel safe as a result of frequent and recurrent experience of negative emotions. Studies have shown that their levels of stress hormones can be quite high and that parts of the brain that are involved with kindness and empathy for others may not be as well developed as in those children who come from loving and caring homes. It is argued that this occurs because growing up in a threatening environment means that one needs a mental makeup that is going to be able to deal with threats. So one develops a mind set for aggression or anxiety in the event of a perceived threat. If such individuals can be helped to deal with their early maladaptive life patterns that they internalized, through individualized professional help or by providing them a safe, caring and holding environment, where they experience, loving kindness, mercy and compassion, these individuals can experience positive emotions and psychological growth.
Developing compassion is seen as a key process for helping us develop happiness and meaning. It is considered to be the happiest state ever according to some of the practitioners of mindfulness. According to them happiest state can only be achieved with compassion which requires engagement with real life with real people. A Tibetan scholar by name Thupten Jinpa defines compassion as, “a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved”. Compassion is considered as the “grieving of the heart”—being moved by other’s pain and to act on their behalf. Developing compassion for self and others can help us cope with strong emotions that arise within us when we are in conflicts with other people, and even to think about world problems with a sense of equanimity. Focusing on the inner development of loving kindness toward self, social connectedness and contentment can help us on our way.
Be merciful like Jesus
When we recognize acts of mercy or loving kindness in others, often we are not aware that we ourselves embody these very virtues. Otherwise we will not be able to recognize the same in others. These acts of mercy, loving kindness or compassion stems from and leaves us with a greater feel of inclusiveness and connectedness with our brothers and sisters which is similar to the feeling we have toward the same members of our own family. So the Gospel says: whatever you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, we do it for God (Mt: 25:40)—the source from whom we have our being.
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy. Jesus is the ‘visible face of the invisible father’. Jesus reveals God as a merciful God and exhorts his disciples to practice mercy to one another. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5: 7). And in community or in a society where everyone practices mercy, the members keep encountering the merciful face of God in their lives and they worship Him in spirit and truth. When we are weighed down by worries and concerns emanating from a consumeristic world that define happiness in the created or material things, it is difficult to be merciful and compassionate.
The criteria that Jesus has laid down for us to be judged worthy to be with God, are works of mercy (Mt: 25:31-46). When we reflect the merciful and compassionate face of Jesus in our mission and in interpersonal relationships, through our acts of mercy, we move from self to others. We, let go or dissolve our ego identities; allow the different cultural groups in our societies to become more permeable and create room for better inter-cultural exchanges, understanding and empathy. These merciful and compassionate acts will reflect our identity as children of God. This identity as children of God can prevail above all other identities.