The night before his first triathlon, Murphy and his Law were riding my brother’s bumper just to watch him sweat. He could barely take the tiny, almost purposeful, mishaps: the broken swim goggles, the triathlon gear haphazardly strewn about the dining room, the painful, resurfacing image of himself, splashing and flailing helplessly across Lake Shawnee while all the other triathletes glided gracefully past. He was a veritable mess, but all I did at first was remark sarcastically about his about his propensity for hearing about impossible things and doing them because someone said he couldn’t. He obliged my psychobabble jabbing with a smirk, and then admitted he needed a favor. He needed new swim goggles and he wanted me to go get them. Although I agreed to the task, he soon realized I hadn’t quite picked up on his sense of urgency. “Maybe I’ll get them myself,” he quipped, hoping this would make me feel bad about my dawdling. Suddenly I felt unnecessary. I wanted him to need me at least a little so I offered to go to Wal-Mart for racing snacks. He took me up on that one.
While he scurried about the kitchen, cursing at the unfortunate series of events, I pondered the idea of going with him. Maybe I could calm him down before the race tomorrow. The thought of him splashing around pathetically with no one to tell him he was okay at the end made me a little sad. On the other hand, what if what he really needed was to hit the ground hard, to crash into his own limits and feel the pain of over-commitment and under-preparation? I wondered what Mercy would do in this situation. And without actually asking Mercy what she would do, I offered to go with him, just to feel it out. He seemed relieved at the idea, but suggested that I probably didn’t want to get up at 3:00am. I couldn’t convince him that I did, but we both knew maybe it would make things a little better.
Soon I started thinking about the times Mercy has rescued me in her strange ways. Sometimes she lets me flounder and flop so I won’t crash quite so badly next time. And then there are times when, maybe out of pure pity for my ignorance, and she throws out a life raft and the circumstances tilt ever so slightly in my favor. Where a moment before I was running uphill with the wind in my face, suddenly I’m coasting on a downhill slope with a breeze coming up from behind. After my many run-ins with Mercy, I can tell one or two things about her character though. One of Mercy’s favorite things to do is be really nice when we don’t deserve it. This sort of behavior totally pulls the rug out from under our Pavlovian rug of rewards and consequences. It totally busts the if-then formula we learned about good and bad behavior back in grade school. Mercy chuckles to herself when we stare awestruck as kindness melts over us right after we just got into an argument with our spouse or lied to our boss about our vacation time or cut someone off in traffic. It’s when we are the most unloveable and mean and wretched that we are also most vulnerable to Love and Mercy sneaking up on us with their treacherous goodnesses.
I have to admit though. These means are quite effective. While I’m in the middle of kicking myself for being an ass, I’m completely unarmed when it comes to defending myself against Love. I am forced to realize that Kindness just tackled me for no reason except that she loves me, I guess, because I sure did not earn it. It seems to have this bizarre pleasure in making me very uncomfortable. But it works. Like the time I drank my grandpa’s whiskey in the basement with my cousins until I blacked out. I said all sorts of inappropriate things I wanted to deny except one of my cousin’s got it all on video. When I came to, my hair was being held back by one of my brothers, the other one holding me steady. That was the night I lost my right to be self-righteous about how much they drank and I didn’t. I woke up guilty, sunken and hungover, slumped into the queen bed in my bedroom at my parents’ house. I sprawled there marinating in heaps of shame, my own Satan, my own voice accusing me. Soon I saw my old car, the “legendary” Buick LeSabre, pull up in front of the house. And I wasn’t driving it. When I inquired about the strange behavior of my vehicle, my mother informed me that my father had taken it out and cleaned it. And it was sparkly, as sparkly as an ’86 Buick LeSabre could be, with a full tank of gas and everything. It was horrible. When I knew what I really deserved was to be excommunicated, here comes Mercy, my Teacher, sidling up next to me with cookies and warm milk, taking me out of the cold, and erasing my latest black mark off the whiteboard. When Mercy wins, she kind of loses, at first, so I can win. I can’t say that I understand it fully, but all I know is, this is the only way we both get what we want in the end. I turn around, tearful, repentant and grateful, and she gets to welcome me home.
This is the sort of thing Mercy loves to do. This is why I am not Mercy. But I can’t deny she’s good at her job.
PS: The good news for John: he participated in the triathlon anyway, despite all the obstacles, or in his case, because of them. He ended up with an excellent time and to his own chagrin, he will probably end up doing a couple more. And if I know him, he may not even train for them.