Anne Lamott: "The grace of this world is hilariously huge"

Salon talks to the author of "Hallelujah Anyway" about being "the world's worst Christian"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 29, 2017 8:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author
A photo of the author

In a world of seemingly endless perfectly filtered Instagram moments, Anne Lamott remains an icon of blessed imperfection. Her nonfiction classics like "Operating Instructions" and "Bird by Bird" have become handbooks for parents and writers whose lives lean toward the joyously messy. And in her latest, "Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy," she continues to explore her journey as a "devout, if terrible, Christian" — at a cultural and political moment when mercy feels in painfully limited supply.

Salon spoke to Lamott recently about her new book, about spirituality, and about the beauty in the abyss. Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.

It feels like a lot of things have come into more dramatic relief since the election, and that there's a particular political vindictiveness now. What do you think about the need for mercy in politics and culture now?

I think that things did change on the evening of November 8, at about 8 p.m. here in California. Trump is president, and the world is scary, and we're an extremely vulnerable species. But you know what? Hallelujah anyway. We're here. I love my people, I love my animals. It's a beautiful day outside here today; there's a beautiful yellow aura in the sky. There are a whole lot of things to look forward to. And that's the gospel. It's a paradox; it's like having a miracle — a miracle is tough and messy and time-consuming . . . . There's a level of hatred and insanity in our country now, and some days you wake up and feel like there's a sniper in the trees. But we still stick together; we lurch ever onward.

You have a phrase in the book about being "shocked into joy" and you talk about "radical mercy." And we see in the Bible that Jesus was not a chill dude; Jesus was a troublemaker who pissed off a lot of people. Yet there's this idea that if you're a Christian you're some barefoot hippie who sits on the hill waving.

I would say I'm an aging hippie, but I also get up and I get thirsty people water. Jesus is really very clear about us trying to do a tiny bit better. You are loved and chosen, as is, in your current condition, with all the bad, aggressive, ambitious thoughts you have to bring. Jesus says, "Come on up and sit with me. You, as is." But at the same time, Jesus also hints that maybe we can do better.

So I can give thirsty people water. I can give away everything I can, and I observe and I practice awareness of my reactivity. I can say, "It's okay." The grace of this world is so hilariously huge, and the mercy of this world is so all-pervasive, that our general awfulness is just a drop in the bucket; so let's just get on with it.

It's challenging to reconcile that there's good in the world when terrible things happen. How do we look at things that are bad and not see them as a violation of an imaginary contract we have with the divine that if we're good, good things will happen?

The thing that makes me crazy is when people say those Christian bumper sticker things like, "Well, God never gives you more than you can handle." Oh stop. That is so offensive. My friend says you should never ever let God think you're capable of handling more.

I think we've made up all these stories of how things should be, and that if we did this or that, then this will surely follow. Our parents told us this stuff when we were three and four and five, and we believed because we wanted to make them happy. It did make them happy, that if we did really well in school we would get ahead and feel really good about ourselves. But if we got ahead in school, other kids were jealous; they thought we were apple polishers. And if we got ahead, it was never quite ahead enough. If we got an A-, that was a good start, and was there time to bring it around? All these stories we made up are that if we do this we will be shown favor and if we do that we'll be punished. People love the punishing God because they had punishing parents, and it gives them a sense of control over life's weirdness and serendipity and bad serendipity.

If I were God's West Coast representative, life would be more like a silverware drawer and it would be organized. Here you'd have the knives, and that might be all the beautiful blessings. Over here where the forks go, you might have all the sad or difficult things. Where the soup spoons go, you'd have the slightly confusing things. It's not that way. Every wisdom tradition says the good news is that it's all mixed up together — the blessing, the grace, the sorrow, the devastation, the tragedy, the resurrection. They're all mixed together. And God is in it all, or goodness is in it all, or good orderly direction is in it all.

Mr. Rogers, when he was a little boy, used to ask his mother where God was in tragedies. She would say, "Look to the helpers." And in these days since, well, let's say November 8, I look for the helpers. I look for them, and I see we will self-fund care for the poor. We will self-fund Planned Parenthood. We will self-fund Greenpeace. We will self-fund salvation of God's poorest people and of this poor, poor, Mother Earth. It's just awesome when we're together.

I wrote a lot about this in "Stitches," which is more about tragedy and coming through. We are told no matter what, avoid the abyss and stay one step ahead of it. The American way is forward thrust, and to keep moving, which is why I can tell you so many nice bumper sticker thoughts and silver lining thoughts. The fact is that all spiritual progress happens when you finally stop trying to stay out of the abyss. You stop trying to trick it out with a cute throw rug from IKEA and you stop. And you do fall. They call it the abyss because its pretty abysmal. But God is in the abyss and if you don't believe in God, then your friends are in the abyss. They sit with you and they have the decency to not try to mow you into having more hope and a better attitude. That's the whole Jesus thing. It's, "This sucks. And I'm here." I think that's pretty much what our friends have to offer.

It's about sitting with that pain sometimes. It's about sitting with the difficulty. Our culture encourages, "How do I fix it? How do I not feel pain?"

And how do I fake it? The terror is increased by the effort to keep the surface burnished so that people won't know. When I was 16, the women's movement came along, and that's where I first found salvation with a capital S. It was that women said, "We're here, we're going to tell the truth, and we're a little angry. And would you like some lentils?" I guess it's Paul who says that we're made perfect in our weakness, in surrender and the dark night of the soul and trust and just sitting there and saying, "I hate this. I hate this."

There was a book in the '50s called "The Overly Sensitive Child," and I was diagnosed as being an overly sensitive child. Instead of saying, "This is a beautiful way to be even though it may not feel that way now; so many blessings and truth will come of your sensitivity and being so permeable and open," what my parents said was, "Oh for Christ's sake, Annie, now what?"

You talk so much to people of faith, but your books resonate with people who don't have faith, and people who are really angry at Christianity. And we have a lot of reasons to be angry at the things that are done in the name of Christianity. How do you help people get what they can find in faith without having to defend this institution?

I hate Christianity as much the next person. It's just obscene — the damage, the hatred that it's spewed, the obsessive condemnation and exclusion, the Paul Ryan healthcare [philosophy of] "Pull up the ladder; I've got mine but I'd like a little bit more because then I'll be happy." I just heard this great line that religion is a defense against spiritual experiences. And spiritual experience — everyone has had the human experience. I'd say half the people who come to my readings and talks have run screaming from the toxic, damaging, wounding blight of a Christian family. A bunch of people don't really have a position or care. I'm not a big Christian leader. I'm the world's worst Christian too, except I do give thirsty people water and I always run into people and tell them, "Oh, I love your hat. Do you think these grapes are good?" I give people my time. But I can't defend Christianity and I don't really try to. I don't need people to come over to my side and dance with me to a large gospel choir — although that would be fabulous.

There are so many people on the far left and medium left and the middle who don't subscribe to that doctrine that is based on exclusion and punishment, and God never forgiving us for the Garden of Eden and still holding a grudge. That was a reflection of a very primitive time and a very primitive writer. Things evolved. Things evolve in Isaiah where God takes the form of mercy and doesn't hold grudges. I do. I've always said that I'm not one of those Christians who's heavily into forgiveness. I do forgive but it takes so long. But I write about it and I'm honest about it and little by little I have healing around it. I would lay the blame for the toxicity and hatred and craziness in this country on fundamentalist Christianity. You can assume that the people in Arkansas who are desperately trying to kill those 11 inmates on death row in eight days are fundamentalist Christians. [Governor Asa Hutchinson is indeed a self-proclaimed devout Christian.] 

I think the challenge is always, where can we find the lessons that connect us most closely to each other? 

Connection, I know. Connection and union. Union with our selves and union with our talents and maybe what you or I might call God but what others might call goodness or good orderly direction. A sense that the world is sort of safe and okay and lovable. We're very human. I think the question isn't "Where can I find the truth or a good enough path?" It's "Where do I even start?"

It's hard because the natural response in the face of so much tragic political devastation and insanity is to put more armor on and to get more girded and to get a better bulwark. The solution is to become more human and become more permeable and to let our shoulders drop down and take a long deep breath and even to say, "Here's my prayer to God: Okay, what?" … The point is not that people make mistakes and God hates everybody who does. The point is that we spring from the same ancestors. If I don't get that as a Christian I've completely missed the boat.

I'm scared a lot of the time. I can see that we are systematically destroying the earth, even as we speak. And yet I have such a huge faith that there is so much goodness in you and me and the world and as Mr. Rogers' mother said, the helpers. There's as much goodness as there is scariness. Courage is fear that has said its prayers and I'm very fearful as I say my prayers. And my prayer is usually, "Help me, help me, help me," or "Thank you, thank you, thank you." I can break the trance of my terror and you can too. I can step outside and look up instead of staring at the TV. And that's the third prayer. It's Wow, I see the treetops and see the sky and see your face. I can start over. That's what mercy is really about. It's about when you're clenched and grim, to breathe again.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Anne Lamott Authors Books Christianity Hallelujah Anyway