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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why Are People So Mean? (and the Grace of the World)

Lisa Graham McMinn and I are each memorizing poems this Advent season, trying to push against the inevitable cognitive slippage of life in the mid-60s. Hers, a well-known Wendell Berry poem, ends with, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Berry’s words, like his life, inspire us to glimpse a quiet, still grace that shows up more in nature’s steady rhythm than in human encounter, which seems rather frantic these days.

 

I’ve been on an adventure this autumn, writing 12 blog posts inspired by David Brooks’s article in The Atlantic, How America Got Mean.” An introduction came first, then 10 challenges for how to resist the meanness all around us, and finally, this conclusion.

 

For those who know me, it’s no surprise my final reflections will be about grace—a topic in my fovea centralis for decades.

 

Yes, the world is vicious just now. We’ve (mostly) survived a singeing pandemic, narcissism rates are soaring, we throw around heavy words as weapons to justify our cruelty, we huddle in our silos with like-minded people as we accuse others of being vile extremists. Phew… It’s rugged out here.

 

And still, for those with eyes to see, there is grace.

 

In these semi-retirement years, as I sit with people one or two days a week as their psychotherapist, I am noticing two things.


Pain and Suffering

First, we’re hurting. No, I don’t mean my clients are in pain, but I have it all together. I don’t mean you’re a mess, but I’m pretty much okay. Nope. We’re all messy. We’re all living beside our pool of tears. We’re in the stew together.

 

One of the most consistent findings from social psychology over the past half century is called self-enhancement. Put simply, we inflate our own value and degrade others. Maybe it’s just the armor we need to survive a vicious world, or perhaps it’s advantageous for natural selection, or it could be both. But when people encounter a rough season of life and reach out for help, something surprising often happens as they confront their pain and struggles and weaknesses. The armor comes off and a vulnerable sort of humility emerges alongside their suffering, desolation, and despair.

 

I will never celebrate suffering. It is horrific and brutal and stunningly terrible. But sometimes suffering brings a gentle, tender self-awareness that can make us more fully awake to ourselves and others around us. And it is precisely here, in the weeping of self-awakening, where grace seeps in around the edges of our pain, bringing comfort and hope.

 

Names and Faces of Grace

Grace is the second thing I am noticing. More than any techniques I may have studied and mastered, more than any homework I can assign my clients, I’m increasingly convinced that psychotherapy works because it is a place where one person bears witness to the other’s journey. It is a place of tender acceptance, compassionate understanding, and sincere caring. I’m tempted to write more words here, but words will never contain this mystery.

 

I recall those who have been grace in the messy times of my life. They have names and faces and stories of their own, and they mean the world to me. I hope you have those people in your life, too.

 

It’s a harsh world out there, but in the inner sanctum of safe, caring companionship, there are still beautiful, caring spaces where people heal and recover and thrive and grow.

 

The poem I am memorizing just now is Mary Oliver’s, Mornings at Blackwater. She ends it: “So come to... the harbor of your longing, and put your lips to the world. And live your life.”



 
 

Previous posts in this series

Challenge #1: Vengelessness

Challenge #2: The Other Team Matters

Challenge #3: No, I am NOT Omniscient

Challenge #4: Hermeneutic Humility

Challenge #5: Minding Our Social Media Matters

Challenge #6: Meeting Our Inner Narcissist

Challenge #7: Good Grief

 

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