Finding Radical Kindness in the Face of Chaos and Danger

Renowned writer, devoted grandmother, and thought-provoker Anne Lamott shares her latest fascination with an act we rarely consider but desperately need: mercy.

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Anne Lamott wasn’t planning to write a book on mercy. She’d touched on the subject in Traveling Mercies and some of her other bestsellers, and she thought she was done. “But then this thing started to nudge me and tug on my sleeve,” she says as she sits down at a cafe near her home in Fairfax, California. “I started thinking about mercy—just the word—and I noticed that if I said ‘mercy’ or ‘merciful’ to people, it could change their whole day.”

What emerged was Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, her timely, thought-provoking, and—yes—funny take on a topic most of us don’t give much thought to. “Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice,” she writes. “It includes everything out there that just makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

In a pink puffer jacket, sporting her trademark dreadlocks with golden highlights, Lamott is no faint-hearted church lady. Over the years, she has written evocatively about her struggles with alcoholism and her mid-life conversion to Christianity, but this morning, as the conversation begins, the first thing she wants to talk about is her grandson, Jax.

Hugh Delehanty: Why mercy? Why now?

Anne Lamott: I have a seven-year-old who lives with me, and I feel it’s a catastrophic time to be born into. But I also feel strongly that the counterintuitive thing to do in the face of the danger and chaos is to find mercy within yourself and operate from that place, instead of strategically trying to suss things out. I spend a lot of time with little kids, and I’ve noticed I become really merciful and open when they’re around. They’re crazily generous. My grandson will give stuff away that I don’t want him to give away. The merciful heart is really rich at four or five, but then it begins to diminish.

…the counterintuitive thing to do in the face of the danger and chaos is to find mercy within yourself and operate from that place, instead of strategically trying to suss things out.

In kindergarten you’re all part of the litter, all sleeping on the floor together. Then, in first grade, you learn subtraction—something before anybody else—and you start getting esteemed for that. Pretty soon, you go from being in the litter to being singled out for praise. You start putting things in the drawer that don’t serve you, like wonder and connecti