The Challenge of Mercy

Robert Saul, MD: Works of mercy cannot be measured or specifically quantified yet they define the essential elements of our ability to provide meaningful care.

Sometime ago, I wrote an article about mercy.1 Mercy is that peculiar quality that at times seems ephemeral (transient, temporary) yet pervasive in its calling.  Mercy is meted out in discrete quantities at specific times yet should be ever-present in our interactions with other folks in our lives, especially the less fortunate.  Indeed, the ability to exhibit mercy can characterize a life of meaning. And as a physician, mercy is an essential trait in being a trusted doctor capable of non-judgmental compassionate care.

I must admit that I am still not sure how to describe or define it but find the writings of others to be quite helpful.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association addresses the calling of medicine and the difficulties with providing care to certain “difficult” patients.2 The author notes a previously attributed quote that “mercy is a willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”3  He further states that mercy is a “developed human capacity that involves hard, uncertain, and hidden work.” Works of mercy cannot be measured or specifically quantified yet they define the essential elements of our ability to provide meaningful care.

These descriptions bring the work of Bryan Stevenson into sharp focus.  Mr. Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL.  His book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, recounts his work providing services for the poor, the disfavored, the condemned, and the incarcerated.4 The measure of each of us and the measure of our society indeed is related to the willingness to enter this “chaos” and accept our common humanity.  This work can be uncomfortable, but hard compassionate work always is.

Similar examples abound, but I will refer to a book I just completed, Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood.5 Dawn Turner chronicles her childhood on the South Side of Chicago.  The trials and tribulations of racism and poverty pervade her childhood as she, her sister and her best friend progress through the early decades of life.  The triumphs and shocking tragedies that are encountered certainly remind us of the chaos of others and the need to look and act beyond ourselves. And mercy is the critical factor here.

I was particularly struck by the comments of one individual who said she was capable of extending forgiveness to others but could not forgive herself—and this guilt was crushing.  So, mercy should perhaps be the willingness to enter into the chaos of others and also to enter into the chaos of our own lives.  Giving ourselves grace is so important.


Mercy should perhaps be the willingness to enter into the chaos of others and also to enter into the chaos of our own lives. Giving ourselves grace is so important. Click To Tweet


Let me end with a quote from my article in 20161 – “I now see that mercy, and the discomfort that it invites, is a vital part of my mission going forward…The chaos of others can be quite discomforting. It is difficult to accept our roles at times to treat the less fortunate as we would our own family. Yet that is the measure of our ability to exhibit mercy and provide the nurturing care that is necessary to improve our lives, the lives of our fellow citizens, and the life of our community. As Dr. Daaleman states, ‘If the arc of medicine is to ultimately bend toward healing, mercy will be its fulcrum.’2 Whether engaged in medical service as a physician or community service as a citizen, we need to let mercy be our guide and let compassion and forbearance lead us forward.”

Mercy should be the same fulcrum for healing in our society as it is suggested for healing in medicine. Sincerity, humility and compassion are the decisive agents for the fulcrum to work as the crux of change.  We are capable of mercy and should exercise such at every opportunity.

Let’s not let mercy be transient or temporary but rather have it be pervasive in our lives.  The chaos of others is in so many ways the chaos of all of us when we acknowledge our common humanity.


  1. Saul RA. Mercy. GHS Proc. May 2016 1(1):70.
  2. Daaleman TP. The quality of mercy: will you be my doctor? JAMA. 2014;312:1863-4.
  3. Keenan JF. The Works of Mercy. Rowman & Littlefield; 2007, Lanham MD.
  4. Stevenson B. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel and Grau, 2014, New York.
  5. Turner D. Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood. Simon and Schuster, 2021, New York.


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