Listening to Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott photo

Listening to Anne Lamott’s unique voice is like attending a good AA meeting: terrible and wonderful truth is all mixed together in there, and you leave feeling a little saddened at the stark reality of our human condition, and really joyful at the wonder of being redeemed. Today I want to share a few lines from her last book, Hallelujah Anyway, as an example of how she speaks to me.

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine or the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

I, for one, am pretty good at feeling mercy for the people I like, (which unfortunately circles a lot around those who like me), pretty crappy at feeling mercy for those I judge, (which is most everyone sooner or later), and especially retarded in feeling it for myself. So I guess I am starving for mercy too. Thanks a lot for reminding me of this Anne!

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves….”

I am starving for a little mercy when I see myself being “a great big mess” in one of our contemplative community groups: alternating between shining with a super-spiritual insight in my own mind, relishing a delightful word of vulnerability shared by a peer, noticing how sexy she is as she speaks, punishing myself for having that thought, trying to focus on something more pure, wondering how long it will be until we are done and I can drive home to eat dinner, hoping someone will say something that inspires me, trying to stop talking so much myself so I can actually let someone else speak, and on and on it goes inside the “great big mess” of my mind.

“I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right.”

How many times have I settled for trying to be right, in place of surrendering to mercy? With my tribe I want to be inside the group who welcomes everyone, the inclusivists. And I love to say little digs at the exclusivists, who seem to pop up in the news everyday with their rejections of women, African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQs, the “other” political side, the poor described as “lazy,” (just making this list makes me glow at how “right” I am and how “wrong” they are). All of this is to show that I have special expertise at excluding the excluders. I can make subtle and blatant points within my tribe about how right we are, but I have a dang hard time making myself walk back up to the neighbor and chat after he told me how poor, black people in the inner-city are lazy and how we all need guns to protect ourselves from those dangerous criminals. Is there some way to have mercy and still hang onto how right I am?

“I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.”

Over the past year I learned Anne and I are not the only ones who struggle with genuine self-respect, which might mean practicing little acts of mercy toward ourselves. The Stanford professors teaching our Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training course have reminded us of the studies showing how people in the West have a much easier time feeling compassion for others than ourselves. This caused them to rearrange the order of practicing compassion cultivation to start with a loved one, and then work into cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves. (If we get a little experience with that hard work under our belts, we can move toward compassion for strangers, difficult people, and all beings. More about that later).

Maybe the uphill battle of practicing a little mercy for ourselves is one of the greatest gifts Anne Lamott has been trying to offer us all in her writing. In describing her own daily battles with this monumental task, she is telling us it is okay if we struggle with boarding the self-mercy train. I know I need help with this one. I really need friends around me who accept, and even kind of like, me as I am. Being illiterate in reading the truth of my own innate value, the kind that is based on nothing but simple being, I need them to be professors of the high art of having mercy for me. I need their teaching of acceptance. I need the remedial class in mercy-for-self most every day. (No wonder I built a career around forming contemplative communities who meet everyday).

In a few months we will welcome Anne Lamott to New Orleans. She will not speak for many hours in a lecture format like we often have for our annual contemplative conference. She will share like someone does at a good AA meeting: telling her story of terrible and wonderful truth all mixed together in a way that helps us touch our own humanity and walk away feeling a bit more redeemed. We will try to withhold our projections of greatness and offer her the mercy of accepting her as a messy human just like us. We will thank her for sharing her own story, just like AA friends thank each other: expecting nothing but Anne being herself, and hoping we can have eyes to see the presence of The Mercy right there in the messy middle of it all.

If you want to join us for “An Evening with Anne Lamott” on Saturday, October 20, and get a copy of her next book, Almost Everything, watch our website for registration details at In the meantime, practice a little mercy for yourself here and there, and if you want to, come share your own messy story in one of our contemplative communities. We will try to do the same.



About soulcare4u

I am the author of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic World, published by Wipf & Stock and available through; and of a blog on, "A Contemplative Path." I serve as the founding spiritual director of The School for Contemplative Living (, adjunct faculty of Loyola University, and as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in private practice.
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1 Response to Listening to Anne Lamott

  1. alisha2709 says:

    YESSS this post is an amazing gift to me today. Thank you, William and Anne.

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