Justice and Mercy

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” – Psalm 23:6

This beautiful phrase from the Bible comes near the end of the prayer that begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When it popped into my mind today, I thought it was “justice and mercy,” but on looking it up, I found the above translation.

I had been thinking about my essence, and how it informs my writing, after a workshop I took this weekend with Corey Blake at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. In Corey’s interactive exercises, I zeroed in on the important role judgment and forgiveness have played in my life. Justice and mercy are my touchstones. But there is a very subtle difference between justice and judgment, isn’t there?

In my memoir, Off Kilter,  I wrote about learning to stop judging my mother (and myself) and to just do what makes me happy. I recalled an incident from my childhood. During recess in elementary school, I was unjustly accused of a malicious act that was an accident. The school principal was a nun who showed me no mercy. She had me stand beside her at the entrance to the building as all eight grades of students streamed indoors, staring at me on the way to their classrooms.

Until that day, I was a “good girl.” I tried very hard to do what was expected of me. But it didn’t matter to Sister Principal. And so, for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be one of the “bad kids,” the ones who were held up as examples of how not to be.

We rarely saw what these kids had done that was so bad. We only saw their embarrassed or defiant faces as our principal put them out for public viewing like criminals in the dock.

And now I was just like them. From good to bad, in an instant. I threw a snowball at another girl, aimed at her back. She turned and got it in the face, and there must have been ice inside, because her nose was bloody. I apologized, crying just as much as she.

My pleas went unanswered, and I wondered how guilty the other “bad kids” were. Did anyone ever stop to consider whether they had meant to do wrong?

I was so traumatized I never stepped a wrong foot again in that school. I knew that my intent would not matter if my actions caused damage.

Have you ever experienced a personal injustice? What did you learn from it? Does it matter to you if people misjudge you?

Let’s talk about it. Comment below.

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