This week, I went to see Iris (not her real name), one of my most challenging patients. Iris has managed to ostracize, infuriate and frustrate almost everyone in her life, from her offspring to her neighbours. She’s a tiny but mighty force to contend with, passing judgements, criticisms, threats of lawsuits to anyone who gets in her way as she conducts life from her wheeled walker. Is it any wonder that when I first went to see her months ago, the concierge in her building was shocked that anyone at all was coming to see her. “No one visits her,” he informed me.
When I care for Iris’ feet, I get an earful about everything and everyone who has crossed her path since the last month. How this person wronged her, how that one cheated her, how another one let her down. What I notice is that Iris is never at fault; it’s always the other guy. There’s a lot of bitterness and regret in her conversation, but no forgiveness or self-examination. She holds on to past hurts: the husband who beat her, the kids who turned out to be a disappointment, the people who didn’t take her advice. I don’t think she’s ever let anything go.
I find her fascinating, a bit of a downer, but it’s interesting listening to her and trying to pick her brain. How’d you end up like this? I want to ask her but I’m afraid of the answer. Despite her complaining, I have a soft spot for her. There’s a vulnerability about her that shows up in unexpected moments, as if she wants to care for people but she can’t help but insult and criticize them. Iris is lonely and resentful. She’s an example of how life can turn out if I’m not careful.
When she angrily tells me (again) about something that happened years ago, she teaches me a valuable lesson in why we need to forgive and to let go of the hurt before it becomes a crutch that governs our feelings and actions. I see that her unwillingness to do this is eating her up.
In the Our Father, we pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, if we want God to forgive our sins, we have to forgive those who hurt us. Forgiveness, then, is important for our salvation. We also need to forgive in order to leave the past and move forward in life with a sense of peace.
I don’t want to grow old harbouring so much bitterness that no one wants to be around me. I don’t want to miss opportunities for happiness because my heart is so full of acrimony. I know how easy it is to hang on to past hurts and wallow in them because it feels so good to pity myself, but Iris shows me how self-destructive it is. The lack of inner peace that results from clinging to the bad stuff is not what I want in my life. I don’t want to end up like Iris.