Grace* is unearned. Down deep, grace recognizes that human beings are flawed and that they can change, can learn.
I am not a religious person. I don’t have a coherent story about where grace comes from like some others do. I don’t fault anyone for having such a story or personifying this powerful sensation though, because it is a mystery to me how we find grace. Some people do, some don’t. But to those of us who manage to find grace, it is truly revelatory.
For me, finding grace goes something like this. There are some people who, at some point in their lives, have failed to be or cannot be the person I need or expect them to be. When I recognize that, I have a choice to become the person they need in their lives.
Grace makes people angry. Because it looks like an act of accommodation or, perhaps, exploitation to indulge a flawed person. But this is why I choose the word “finding” grace instead of “granting” or “giving” it. Grace is not a gift to give from one person to another. Grace is not forgiveness. Grace is not absolution. On the contrary, grace rests on acknowledgement of failure, of flaws, of pain inflicted and pain felt.
Grace is an admission that the world is different than, by rights or ethics or expectations it should and could be. Grace comes with a profound sense of loss. Grace feels like surrender, and it is often characterized that way. I prefer to think of it as a reboot. A chance to refocus our vision on what is around us, in material and concrete ways. To stop waiting for unfulfilled promises to come true before we can become the humans we, ourselves, want to be.
Grace offers opportunity, not to dismiss transgression, but to become for oneself an embodiment of all that had been missing in another, all that is yearned for in moments of disappointment and regret. Grace demands accountability, but starts with an account, a story told and someone to listen.
Finding grace is in the end an opportunity to become someone who ends a pattern of imperfect behavior, not out of selfless altruism but from a drive to be a better human being. The kind of human being others need in their lives.
There is no grace in continuing a cycle of cruelty. There is no grace in denial of past transgressions nor in denial of compassion. Failure is fueled by denial. Withholding rather than giving, withdrawing rather than engaging, these are acts that themselves turn humans into the kind of people who cannot or will not be the people others need them to be.
I feel fortunate in my life to have found a state of grace. I cannot retrace the exact steps that brought me here. Staying here is easier than getting here, but still a struggle.
Losing grace is coincident with desire for another to suffer. Put starkly and honestly in that way, such a desire is indefensible. But it is only through grace that I can come to name that desire in such an honest account.
If I can ask myself, “how important is it to me that this other person feels pain?” I can almost always recognize that no amount of suffering or shame will improve my life. Almost.
But more than that, I can see that learning to desire others’ suffering is dangerously destructive. It leads me to become someone I do not want to be. And it presents a choice, not about who the other has been or is, but about who I am and want to become. That choice is the path to grace.
- n.b. I’ve been reading a lot about grace in the past year. My view is not a meditation on Christian theology, though most of the writers I’ve consulted — from bell hooks to Augustine — are working from notions of grace that originate in the Christian Bible. My reflection is a reaction to rallying cries from surprisingly diverse perspectives, politically and spiritually, that call for more suffering, less compassion, less effort to model generosity and…denial of love. Love’s stock is way, way down. I figure it is a good time to invest. And speaking of time, my lack of faith does not diminish my appreciation for grace precisely because I see that we are, as humans, finite. We haven’t a moment to waste. Spending the moments we do have becoming the best humans we can be just makes all the more sense.
Augustine of Hippo. On Grace & Free Will. CE 426. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1510.htm
Castiglione, Baldassare. The book of the courtier. Courier Corporation, 2003.
Emison, Patricia. “Grazia.” Renaissance Studies Vol. 5, №4 (December 1991), pp. 427–460.
hooks, bell. All About love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2018.
McCann, James. Maize and grace. Harvard University Press, 2005.
Su, Francis Edward. The Lesson of Grace in Teaching. MAA Haimo Teaching Award Lecture
Joint Math Meetings, January 11, 2013. https://mathyawp.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-lesson-of-grace-in teaching.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR18_c7eL2FKuz5mjTmrHBqmeu7zyumFQTL_4drHOC3p-25i8hfHqEsvzZY
Tutu, Desmond. Hope and suffering : sermons and speeches. Mothobi Mutloatse, Ed. Johannesburg : Skotaville Publishers, 1983.