Practicing the Works of Mercy in a Time of War

by Mark Chmiel

“What an awful thing war is! Mother, it seems not men
but a lot of devils and butchers butchering each other.”


On Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

This book tells the story of Walt’s insertion, his practice of the 4th Tiep Hien precept, not to look away from suffering. Actually, here’s the original precept: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.  Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world.  Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds.  By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

Morris begins with Walt in NYC, where he lost his job as editor of Brooklyn Eagle, had a mixed reception of his last book, endured family shit, dealt with his publishers going bankrupt, and faced the end of unhappy love affair. Oy vey iz Walt! But it was the reality of suffering that got him out of his rut of “bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising.” [6]  Onto Washington!

There, Walt did not avoid contact with the suffering; he roamed the hospitals that held the wounded and maimed from the Civil War. In this sense, then, he had to complement the Via Positiva he had walked—the buoyant, cheerful, exuberant self that gave birth to the first edition of Leaves of Grass—with the Via Negativa, the path into that dark night of the nation’s soul, manifested in the misery, ache, and loss of  war.

And I say this to students about accompaniment:  Tt’s not all about you giving, it’s both/and—you give, and you receive.  So, Whitman said, “People used to say to me, Walt you are doing miracles for those fellows in the hospitals. I wasn’t. I was doing  miracles for myself.” [100] Yeah, how compelling can cruising be when you’ve seen suffering like that: “Nothing in his far from sheltered life had prepared him for the sights, sounds, and the smells of the army hospitals—they were literally a world unto themselves.” [88]

And so, like Kathy Kelly and friends 150 years later, Whitman was performing the “works of mercy” in a time of war. He found ways to be with the soldiers, gave them treats, wrote letters for them, sat in silence, touched them, loved them. Morris: “From December 1862 until well after the war was over, he personally visited tens of thousands of hurt, lonely, and scared young men in the hospitals in and around Washington, bringing them the ineffable but not inconsiderable gift of his magnetic, consoling presence. In the process, he lost forever his own good health, beginning a long decline that would leave him increasingly enfeebled for the rest of his life.” [5]

I can see why Laura Bush initially thought of Whitman for her 2003 White House poetry program; he was pro-Civil War, pro-Union.  But his accompaniment showed him another side, which he communicated to his mother: “One’s heart grows sick of war, after all, when you see what it really is; every once in a while I feel so horrified and disgusted—it seems to me like a great slaughter-house and the men mutually butchering each other.”  [143]

Whitman’s strong constitution took plenty of existential hits in those years.  His testimony: “It is lucky I like Washington in many respects, and that things are upon the whole pleasant personally, for every day of my life I see enough to make one’s heart ache with sympathy and anguish here in the hospitals, and I do not know as I could stand it if it was not counterbalanced outside. It is curious, when I am present at the most appalling things—death, operations, sickening wounds (perhaps full of maggots)—I do not fail, although my sympathies are very much excited, but keep singularly cool; but often hours afterwards, perhaps when I am home or out walking alone, I feel sick and actually tremble when I recall the thing and have it in my mind again before me.” [143-144]  It’s hard to begin to fathom  what the vast numbers of U.S. veterans  are going through these days, still, as well as the beloveds and caregivers.

Hoorah for Walt that he was religionless.   “[Unlike the preachers,] he gave no lectures, handed out no tracts, and prayed no prayers for the immortal souls of white-faced boys writhing on their beds. Instead, he simply sat and listened. That was what they needed most, more than any medicine, and Whitman sensed it instinctively. ‘I supply often to some of these dear suffering boys in my presence & magnetism that which doctors nor medicines nor skills no any routine assistance can give,’ he wrote. ‘I can testify that friendship has literally cured a fever, and the medicine of daily affection, a bad wound.’” [6]   One man said, “Walt Whitman didn’t bring any tracts or Bibles; he didn’t ask you if you loved the Lord, and didn’t seem to care whether you did or did not.” [109]

One implication of the 4th precept is that it gives us a comparative frame of reference for considering suffering: “Now that I have lived for eight or nine days amid such scenes as the camps furnish and realize the way that hundreds of thousands of good men are now living, and have had to live for a year or more, not only without any of the comforts, but with death and sickness and hard marching and hard fighting, (and no success at that,) for their continual experience—really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.” [75]

In the first half of the 1860s, Whitman embodied adhesiveness and “the dear love of comrades”: He was prepared to listen, let go, take risks, extend himself, go further, celebrate the small moments of exuberant intimacy, and write it all down.