Mercy seems like one of those virtues we’ll always be in reach of but never quite attain. Is it a concept that something we’ve lost sight of and, in turn, grown impervious to? Eventually, if the carrot dangles in front of the horse’s nose for long enough, it fades into the landscape (or the horse goes cross-eyed).
With Hallelujah, Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (Riverhead Books, 192p) Anne Lamott makes this holier-than-thou, seemingly unattainable virtue achievable. In her signature buoyancy and accessible charm, she challenges her readers and, through her own example, illustrates how this goal-on-high can be brought back to earth. “So much of our lack of mercy starts with our own hostility with ourselves,” says Lamott in a phone interview. “We naturally, all the time, let other people make mistakes or start over. But a lot of the work is about being more merciful with ourselves. In my own experience, that’s how I began to find mercy all around me.”
Lamott has a long history in making the unattainable seem achievable. Her basic principle? Don’t just accept your humanity — embrace it. Hallelujah, Anyway (whose title is a shout-out to one of Candi Staton’s biggest hits) is Lamott’s 17th book and 10th collection of essays, and very much is focused on themes and values that are eternally present throughout all of her works. “I’ve written so much about grace,” she says. “It’s like this spiritual WD-40 that makes things unclench and open to us that hadn’t been before.” Indeed, fans of Lamott’s work who found comfort and strength in Travelling Mercies, (Grace) Eventually or Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair will find themselves reunited with an old friend here.
The book is broken down into eight parts — each its own easy-to-digest essay, piping with vulnerabilities, platitudes and self-reflections. Not all of them are perfect, but perfection has never been Lamott’s aim — it’s about being better. Though likely a coincidence, the book follows that progression and arc, gaining momentum and effectiveness as the story evolves.
Lamott is very Jungian in her pursuits for self-improvement and self-value, and she evokes him regularly throughout the text, as well as drawing on her own faith. “It’s about radical self-care and self-respect. We think we need respect from the New York Times, or the bank, or our jobs,” she tells me. “But validation, affection — those are inside jobs. We need to discover why we’re so hard on ourselves; it can be very critical and cutting. But when you do that work the world becomes so much gentler and more attractive, and you begin to exude self-acceptance and gratitude, which is magnetic.”
In an era so ripe with distraction and so beleaguered by headlines, Lamott’s 200-ish page dose of real-talk is a welcome reprieve. “There’s a quieter world that is slower and full of watchfulness and wonder, appreciation and generosity. That’s what builds us up,” she tells me. “It’s not about getting more or achieving more. When you start to be a more merciful person, everything falls into place.”