Showing mercy in the most challenging situations

Safe Environment

Lord Have Mercy on Me, Oh God, when I am rude, critical, not dressed properly, depressed, addicted, aggressive, under the influence, angry, foul-mouthed, controlling, etc.

We can all add something to this list. We all need mercy and Jesus calls us to be merciful to others.

We often act out due to emotions such as fear or sadness. Psychologists refer to these as primary emotions. Secondary emotions would be experiences of anger, depression or low self-esteem. Fear and sadness call out for mercy, but when they are dressed up in these secondary emotions, they are often responded to with rejection, judgment and aggression.

Pope Francis calls us to focus on mercy this year, and our society asks us to focus on Child Abuse Awareness for the month of April. But what do mercy and child abuse awareness have in common?

Many children and adults experience trauma such as abuse. The subsequent fear and sadness expresses itself with anger or self-loathing. Society is quick to dismiss or judge those who exhibit behaviors that result from anger or are self-destructive. Rather than pausing to look at the root of these behaviors, society often simply reacts or dismisses the person. Often these behaviors are expressed due to childhood trauma. If we ask for God’s mercy when we have failed, shouldn’t we especially offer God’s mercy to those who are victims of someone else’s failure? As Catholic Christians we are called to respond with greater attention and mercy.

The federal government, in partner with a clinic in San Diego, conducted a study in 1990 called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Education based on this study is done throughout Alaska and the United States with the aim of teaching educators, social workers, ministers, medical professionals and parents. Some of the studies’ findings suggest “that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.”

The study has also shown that “safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, can often mitigate the consequences of adverse childhood experiences.” Individuals, families and communities can all influence the development of many protective factors throughout a child’s life that can impact his or her development.

During this year of mercy we should reflect on how to provide those protective factors as individuals, families and parish communities. We should reflect on how we can respond and interact with individuals exhibiting these behaviors with the same mercy of God that we believe in and experience.

During this Easter season, I ask everyone to spend time considering those whom you interact with on a regular basis who may show signs or behaviors of someone who has experienced childhood trauma.

For children who may experience childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence or drug or alcohol abuse in their family, you can be a protective factor to help build their resiliency. This is done by developing caring relationships, offering support to struggling parents, supporting community health and development; connecting to a struggling family and supporting agencies that build up resiliency, such as Catholic Social Services, Covenant House and many others.

Pope Francis said he wants the Year of Mercy to be a time for Catholics to contemplate just how merciful God has been to them and to understand better how they are called to be merciful to others in turn. Mercy, the pope wrote, is “the beating heart of the Gospel.”

“How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God,” he wrote. “May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst.”

May we all reflect on how we can be the “balm” on those who have experienced trauma and those currently experiencing trauma, especially when their appearance or behavior challenges us most.

The writer is director of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.

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