Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: An argument for forgiveness as good business strategy and preventive medicine

As I was walking to the bus stop the other night, I passed a new, tiny halal restaurant. Outside, tinsel banners from the recent grand opening flapped in the wind. Inside, hot food, welcoming lights—and not a single customer. No surprise, since we are all retreating into our safe places in the face of a pandemic. I kept thinking of that restaurant as I made my way home. It opened for business, adjacent to college dorms, to feed hungry undergrads—but those students have been sent home through the end of the semester, or longer. If the rest of us, who haven't left town, avoid public places as we practice social distancing, I can't imagine that the future looks rosy for that restaurant.

Let's assume that the restaurant's revenues, for the next several months, are dramatically lower than even its worst-case forecasts. Let's say this new restaurant isn't sitting on any extra cash for rainy days, that they're doing everything they can to weather the storm (modify employee hours, cut spending, etc.), and that they still fail to cover their fixed costs. What options does the business have?

In this case, the restaurant's options (and the livelihoods of its employees) really depend on the attitudes and behaviors of other parties—particularly the landlord, perhaps suppliers and vendors. Forget the entrepreneurial hustle, bootstrapping, and self-reliance that we seem to prize in America; when taken to our limits by an unexpected circumstance, we can find ourselves totally at the mercy of someone else. That is a desperate feeling indeed.

Early in my dad's career, he entered into an agreement with a regional product distributor. This distributor paid the first half of his distribution fee up front, per their agreement, and was to pay the second half of the fee (a significant sum) from his sales, over a period outlined in the contract. Everything was going according to plan until the distributor's family experienced the first of a series of medical emergencies. Their lives crashed to a halt. Medical bills piled up. The distributor approached my dad to explain the situation. My dad, after reflecting on the situation, said, "Don't worry about the money. It's a done deal." A done deal? The distributor was stunned and promised to pay "someday." My dad countered, "If someday comes, great. Between now and then, take care of your family." What resulted was a lifelong friendship and business partnership, which produced benefits much greater than the amount in question.

That wasn't the only opportunity for my dad—who is as good of a bootstrapping, self-sufficient, bottom-line entrepreneur as I've ever met—to practice the virtue of forgiveness. In another situation, a major client was acquired by a direct competitor of my dad's company, right in the middle of a major, five-year agreement. The client called my dad, sheepish and worried. They talked through options. The client suggested they negotiate a buyout of the contract. Again, my dad, who was reflecting on the bigger picture, surprised the client by saying, "How about we just cancel the agreement?" Stunned, the client accepted. By giving the client a graceful way out, my dad set the tone for avoiding bitter or punitive behavior between competitors in coming years. Ultimately, forgiveness preserved the underlying relationship, which again paid dividends down the road.

"Mercy is the only sound business concept right now," reflected my dad recently, as we talked about the economic ripples of the pandemic. "If there's no mercy in all of the middle levels of the chain, it will be catastrophic—especially for those at the bottom, the moms and pops." Taoist scripture makes the same point: “Therefore, the sage keeps his half of the bargain, but does not exact his due," reads the Tao Te Ching (chapter 79). "A man of Virtue performs his part, but a man without virtue requires others to fulfill their obligations.”

The New York Times reported that, depending on various assumptions, the severest phase of the pandemic may last from some months to a year and that Covid-19-related deaths could range from 200,000 to 1 million. In the shadow of these sobering, staggering statistics are many other secondary losses, like the possible business failure of an unassuming little restaurant that just opened in Boston. If it fails, its employees will lose their livelihoods, and the desperate outcomes will continue to cascade. Yes, the federal government will attempt massive stimulus packages. Yes, state and local governments will implement policy to slow and contain the disease. Yes, we humans will recover, as we did from previous influenza pandemics. But long-term optimism won't take the immediate sting from these near-term troubles.

Hardship itself spreads like a virus, and each node in the cascading web of chain reactions is like a new infection. While a Covid-19 vaccine may be months away, or may materialize too late, forgiveness is like a vaccine, available right now, to slow and mitigate the spreading of collateral damage.

Of course, it's possible that the restaurant's landlord could turn a blind eye to the restaurant's plight—after all, it's "just business." That's the conventional wisdom of the "me and mine" political philosophy. After that restaurant closes, perhaps some other business will open that can succeed. Alternately, though, the landlord could choose, for example, to accept reduced rents for six months or prorate missed payments over three years. Leases can be renegotiated, agreements amended (within reason, of course), and the conversation could be started by either tenant or landlord. This is an opportunity for mercy.

If "compassion is the antitoxin of the soul," as Eric Hoffer wrote, we might consider how the secondary toxins of fear and collateral loss could be neutralized by our compassion. In the same way that good hygiene and social practices will soften the worst impacts of the pandemic, forgiveness and mercy—compassion in action—will surely save us from the worst total hardship, with all of its ripples. And if you or I aren't presently in need of mercy, logic says we could be soon. I imagine a nimble, healthy person taking an unexpected fall from a high ladder: landing awkwardly on stiff limbs could lead to broken bones, major injuries, paralysis. Landing on flexible joints into a graceful roll? Maybe only bruises and sore muscles. That's mercy.

It turns out that "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" isn't just a religious recitation; it could be the best economic advice we've got—and a key to being "delivered from evil" or worst-case outcomes. To seed your meditation, here is Maurice Duruflé's setting of The Lord's Prayer ("Notre Père"), in French (The King's Singers) and English (BYU Men's Chorus).

And compassion starts with me. If you're spending a few more minutes at home, as I am, perhaps you and I can use a few of those minutes to:

1) Consider who is in our debt, in large or small ways. Are they going to be in a crunch because of the crisis, particularly as it becomes more protracted? What debts can we forgive? What contracts can we renegotiate to extend mercy, to allow for a graceful landing?

2) To whom are we indebted? If we are headed toward desperate times, what conversation could we have right now to soften the impact? Asking for mercy may feel like "desperate measures"—but better to ask sooner rather than later. Creative negotiation benefits everyone in the long term.

3) How can I put compassion into action today? If forgiving (or renegotiating) existing debts is like treating wounds, then extending mercy proactively, "in advance," is like smart preventive care. Look left and right and you'll probably see someone who is in a newly precarious situation because of the pandemic. For example, many of my arts/music friends are looking at losing 30%–50% of their 2020 income because of cancelled concerts and tours. Our local coffee shop just laid off all employees except managers because of its dramatically decreased foot traffic.

If you have the means, maybe this is the time to hire friends for any variety of tasks and projects, which could all be compatible with social distancing. If we see our wealth, however meager, as the means to help and heal proactively, we can be part of the spiritual vanguard, out ahead of the tsunami.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus reserved especially harsh condemnation for the unforgiving servant (described in Matthew 18:21–35, epitomizing the "me and mine" mentality), which may be read as a cautionary reminder of the costs of withholding mercy (and other forms of profiteering from others' misfortunes). But in the same way that I'm attempting to avoid unproductive fretting about Covid-19 (not easy!), I won't dwell on the perils and pitfalls. Instead, I'll offer these observations with a vote in favor of humankind being both human and kind, and echoing my dad's own conclusion: "Whenever I've seen forgiveness, the benefits have been huge.”