The Case for Secular Grace

A man includes a young child in his amplified message to a community group. Image credit: Joe Frazier.

Bodily, I am not a graceful person. I am clumsy, inattentive, and have been known to wear boots that announce my impending arrival with a dull but satisfying thud.

But lately, I’ve come to realize that grace is a powerful tool and that acting from a graceful place can inoculate our interactions from becoming harmful or stuck. It’s time we reclaim this term from Bible passages and make it the standard for our secular army. Hear me out.

Grace is the lubricant of compassion

Grace is simple in concept but difficult to pull off. To be graceful, one must be humble, compassionate, and thoughtful. For that reason, it’s commonly considered to be in the wheelhouse of the religious, especially those from the Judeo-Christian traditions. But it’s time we heathens reclaimed the term. Grace existed before any sacred text – in fact, any text at all. It is inherently human.

You may remember our case for secular mercy a few years back. And like mercy, grace has been co-opted by people of faith. As the story goes, the world was merciless before Jesus, and we are graceless oafs without His guidance. To be honest, they have a point – we as a people can be pretty darn awful to each other. But while tricky to implement, grace is vital to human connection. Even in fits and starts, applied unevenly by us imperfect meatbags, grace greases the wheels of human connection. Without it, there is too much friction for us to coexist.

Empathy is broken

No one asked my opinion, I know, but I’m no fan of empathy. Ethicist Peter Singer is with me. He considered altruism, especially charitable giving, and coined the expression “warm-glow altruism” for people who give small amounts of money to a range of nonprofits because each one makes them feel good. The reward is a rush of empathy for the donor but it doesn’t move the needle on the problem. The donors aren’t considering how their money could be best used because they’re making decisions through empathy instead of sense. As Paul Bloom points out in his book Against Empathy, the warm glow means that people are more likely to care about a baby stuck in a well than the considerably more disastrous impacts of climate change.

When someone we care about is hurting, we use sympathy to imagine what it feels like for them and that information gives us clues to how to fix the problem. In sympathy, we act with care and thoughtfulness and are capable of grace. Empathy, however, sucks you right in there with them. Great, now both of you are too distraught to see clear to a decision.

“But empathy isn’t an absolute, Lyndal. It’s a goal,” you argue. Well, if reaching or even getting close to the goal of empathy makes you less effective, we should ditch it. Sympathy means putting your own needs and feelings aside to help someone else. It is graceful, which is why it’s so powerful.

Grace does not mean running away from a fight

In fact, in some ways, it dictates the opposite. Where there are humans, there is conflict, and there are negotiated outcomes. We are hardwired to preserve resources, and that means graceful solutions are powerful ones.

Say what you will about the strengths and limitations of nonviolent protest, but graceful leadership has been a part of every successful social justice movement of the last two centuries. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is full of moral outrage, yes, but also the grace of someone who knows he is right. “Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win friendship and understanding,” he wrote. Imagine that in your Twitter feed.

I’m a big believer in righteous anger employed in the service of justice. That itself is also gracefulness. We, women, have a complicated relationship with grace and its cousin, demureness. As Rebecca Traister wrote in her truly excellent book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, winning battles of great intensity and urgency often requires anger because it gives us the energy we need. “[Women] must come to recognize our own rage as valid, as rational, and not as what we’re told it is: ugly, hysterical, marginal, laughable,” she writes. Our poor relationship with our own anger comes from suppressing it, she says. I also think it strips us of the tools we would otherwise have to explore our anger’s power to guide us in the most trying circumstances: Like having grace under fire.

Grace is not only a virtue according to our modern measuring stick, but it also helped us become the most successful species on the planet. It was the graceful, fluid motion of monkey arms that efficiently swung us out of the range of predators, and the stoic grace of leaders in the face of slights that prevented us from constant tribal warfare. When we came to build villages and then cities with shared marketplaces and all-day parking, we applied grace to these interactions, too.

Which brings me to the here and now, and the places we now connect, discuss, collaborate and fight. Passion is everpresent in our discourse but too often we forgo the opportunity to channel it into the format that knits us to other people, allows us to truly support each other and stand up for our values. Humbly, thoughtfully and with compassion. With grace.

Main image: Joe Frazier Photo