Nothing like a mellow Sunday afternoon stroll to restore your soul. My lady and I enjoyed walking on an abandoned dirt road, looking out at the different ranches set against the backdrop of the Sierras and a deep blue sky. There were the different birds flit and flittering about and a very busy mama bird chasing both an owl and an eagle away from its nest. As we continued to frolic a red-tailed hawk screeched for us. Meanwhile we were trying to impress each other (okay it was mostly me) with our most recently gathered nature facts. Mine was the extinction of the passenger pigeon, even though there were no pigeons on our walk and passenger pigeons were native to the East Coast, I still had to share this irrelevant piece of information. I was so excited when I was telling my wife about their extinction I almost burst out of my maroon knickers.

I’ve noticed as I am getting older I surprise myself at how much satisfaction I get out of watching and talking about birds. But there is one bird that gives me no joy and that would be a pigeon. No offense to pigeons, but their presence annoys me and I find them to be a nuisance. Have you ever seen a pigeon chick? Eww! We once had pigeon’s nest on our roof and one day when we were coming home from a one of our hootenannies we found a baseball sized sickly colored gray body with yellow fuzz all over it in our driveway missing it’s heart (the handiwork of our cat, Ziggy) in our driveway. It was not pretty.

Even though I find our pets to be not very smart when compared to humans, I do still find myself every once in a while learning from them. They have managed to show me on many occasions that life and nature are not fair. Allowing me to be a special witness to their killings, which oftentimes is the result of them preying on weaker or injured animals. Of course, we’ve had coyotes return the favor by injuring our cat (Ziggy, again). There is always somebody higher up the food chain. There is very little mercy shown up the food chain in nature, except for humans. We’ve learned not to eat cats and dogs (well, most of us). Not many of us would eat larger mammals like whales, horses, elephants, moose, and giraffes and many shy away from eating grubs, cockroaches, worms and other insects.

For the most part humans seem to be the only animal not only capable of complex, abstract reasoning, but also capable of generous helpings of mercy. Humans at their best can always find occasion to forbear. Mercy is that well-spring of the nobler race we seek to be. Mercy is the counterbalance that keeps applications of justice from turning into oppression and vengeance. Mercy is what keeps us from becoming the Hatfields and McCoys, the Hutus and Tutsi’s, and aggrieved terrorists in search of seventy-two virgins. It’s what keeps us from tearing each other a part for all the wrongs, real or imagined, we do to each other. In other words, mercy is good thing.

Mercy wooden sign with a desert background

Unfortunately, we now live in an emotionally-charged era that seems to be all about inflicting our versions of justice on others without mercy and without wisdom or insight. Oftentimes using euphemisms and gibberish to make our case for applying this modern brand of justice. The truth of the matter is that seeking out justice can be a very dangerous endeavor without mercy. Mercy is a virtue cultivated through personally striving for moral excellence in our lives, seeking to become an upright and honest soul. This pursuit of moral excellence if it is done with humility and without self-righteousness and self-deception is what gives us the requisite understanding of humanity to dispense justice correctly.

It’s difficult to provide a just and accurate measure of others without this understanding. One of the best definitions of justice comes from Robert Reilly. He points out that the classical definition of justice is giving things what is their due according to what they are and to act justly one must first know what things are. Justice correctly applied requires us to the question the Nature of things. For example, Robert Reilly remarks that if a person cannot distinguish between a man and a dog than they might end up treating a man like a dog and a dog like a man. The end of thing then determines whether an action toward it is a use or an abuse, an act of injustice. Without this knowledge, one cannot act justly. This is why justice should be dispensed carefully and always with an ample dose of mercy and care.

We as humans are terrible at seeing things as they are. I think part of the journey here on earth is to learn to be humble enough to see things as they are and not get selfishly stuck in seeing things as we want them to be and getting lost in all the gibberish and clever euphemisms that muddy the water of understanding.