Grace is a powerful idea. We pull it out at funerals and when describing dancers and models. But grace is far more powerful than that. No matter how you view spirituality or religion, grace can help you create deeper, more meaningful relationships. Making new friends is hard enough, but this past few years have been especially difficult on friendships, faith communities and families across the dinner table. It might show up on the evening news in the form of the latest poll, but the division affects us to our core.
The problem doesn’t arise from the lack of nuanced debate (although more of that would be great). The problem lies in the basic subtext. When “cancel culture” rears its ugly head, the real message is:
“You’re wrong and that makes you bad”
“It’s people like you who…” (insert negative outcome of your choice)
In church, we had cancel culture long before it was cool. We called it judgmentalism.
While there’s nothing wrong with fighting for what we believe in, I believe we can do it in a way that doesn’t make the hurt and division worse. It starts with that old-timey idea called grace.
Grace at the Root
Grace is a funny word. It’s something grandmothers and poets use. It sounds religious, but feels familiar, even to people who don’t want anything to do with faith. It’s a word that represents a powerful idea, but it’s been lost in a sea of other ideas, like love, thankfulness, mercy and forgiveness.
Grace is at the root of each one of these ideas. Grace is what makes love, thankfulness, mercy and forgiveness possible in the first place – kind of like a gate keeper in charge our our attitudes. When grace is at the root of who we want to be in the world, love, thankfulness, mercy and forgiveness can grow.
That means grace is an essential ingredient for any relationship between two people, whether it’s family, friendship, romantic love, community or national citizen. But what exactly is it?
Defined by its Opposite
To rescue grace from that sea of other spiritual ideas, let’s start by thinking about its opposite. According to Merriam-Webster, the opposite of grace is deficiency, demerit, disvalue.
Thesaurus.com ads a little more color to the picture with indecency, negelct, rudeness, ugliness, thoughtlessness, ignorance, crudeness, imbalance, bad manners, and tactlessness, to name a few.
Each one of these words describes something out of joint between people. There’s nothing vague about it. Each of these words represents something hurtful whether it’s describing the relationship between you and your barista or between you and your partner.
So does exhibiting grace mean being a constantly cheery doormat? Absolutely not. And that’s where the actual definition comes in handy.
What Grace Is
Miriam Webster defines (the verb) grace this way:
Grace v. “To confer dignity and honor on.”
Used in a sentence, the example is “The king graced him with the rank of a knight.”
That makes sense, right? That kind of sentence is where we’re used to hearing the word grace – in medival dramas or church. We want God to grace us with this or that, or the king to grace the hero, etc.
But what about you and me in 2020? Does grace just come from kings and gods? Can we confer dignity and honor on our barista? What about that Facebook friend on a weird rant? What if we’re just not feeling graceful today? Is it an emotion? Where does our capacity for grace come from?
This is a big can of worms, but before I start going crazy making a “Top Ten Ways To Have More Grace” list, let’s take a breath. What does the word grace mean to you? How does it lead back to that definition, “To confer dignity and honor on”?
What Is Grace to You?
I asked a question on Facebook one day: “Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word grace?” Here is a summary of the answers:
Grace is the name of our moms, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, famous singers, dancers, and the lady who does your nails.
Grace is a word abused by religious leaders as an excuse not to hold certain people accountable for unimaginable crimes.
Grace is “whew!” – that feeling you get when something bad could have happened, but didn’t.
Grace is being kind to yourself and others.
Grace is unwarranted forgiveness.
Grace is not having to pay the meal penalty if shooting goes over time, but not TOO far over time.
Grace is the landlord not charging a late fee when she knows you’re in dire straights.
Grace is mealtime prayers with the family, a time to pause and give thanks.
Grace is the space to be ourselves.
Grace is the people in Australia who stopped on the side of the road, took off their shirt and wrapped it around a desperate koala.
Grace is a note that helps the musician “get to” the next note in a more colorful way.
Grace is mercy and peace.
Grace is amazing.
Grace is beautiful when “under fire” or “under pressure.”
Grace is a funny meme from Ferris Beuler’s Day Off
All of these came frome people on Facebook, some of whom I haven’t talked to in years. One friend, Aimee Wendt, simply responded with the word “hands.” I asked, “like prayer hands?” Here’s what she said:
“No, hard to explain. Women and men’s hands touched with grace. Think like your grandmother’s hands brushing your hair to plait or put into a ponytail. Your fathers hands moving yours to hold a tool correctly. All of their experience passed through their hands with a firm handhold. Holding ours letting us move forward. Hope that makes some sort of sense.” – Aimee Wendt
I believe what Aimee said makes beautiful sense. Grace something we don’t often define, but we recognize it when we see it. It can seem like a special gift, but it’s something we can all bestow on the world.
So now it’s your turn. What do you think of when you hear the word grace? And how does it apply to your everyday relationships?