This week, as I mentioned before, I am meditating on forgiveness. Forgiving yourself. Forgiving others. Asking others for forgiveness. It’s hard work, especially as our culture has, to some extent, a tendency toward holding grudges. Especially right now. So much anger. So much indignation. So much resentment. I own some of this, as I also lean into the habit of expecting others to be better than I am myself.
Earlier this week I had a follow-up appointment with a doctor. I had chosen this doctor quickly, in an emergency because of one of my injuries earlier this year. I visited my insurance company’s website and began calling in-network doctors near my home. The second one on the list could see me that week and gave me an appointment on that Thursday. On Wednesday they called to confirm the appointment and emailed me a bunch of paperwork to fill out before I got there.
I showed up early on Thursday to give them time to enter the paperwork in the computer, and because I was so nervous about the diagnosis. “I don’t see your appointment,” the receptionist said, which puzzled me since they had not only confirmed it, they had sent me paperwork. I gave her my name again, spelled it out because they often spell it wrong. She checked for 3-4 minutes and could not find the appointment. Well, she would try to squeeze me in.
It was over an hour before I moved from the waiting room to an exam room. As I looked around the waiting room, I realized that, in my ignorance, I had selected a huge practice that revolved around a superstar surgeon. The walls that surrounded me featured photos of sports figures who had gone to him for help. Great. So this would also cause me a ridiculous amount of money. And he’d probably lean toward surgery because that’s what surgeons do, and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Finally I moved to an exam room where a Fellow took my medical history and arranged for me to have another X-ray because the surgeon didn’t trust X-rays from outside radiologists. (Cha-ching.) Then the Fellow examined my hand and confirmed the emergency room diagnosis: I had injured a nerve. He recommended soaking with Epsom salts and physical therapy. It would probably get better in six months or so. But he couldn’t technically give me that diagnosis, I’d have to wait for the surgeon although I had now been there 90 minutes. So I waited. For another 2 ½ hours. The surgeon was busy. When the surgeon breezed in, he introduced himself and, while the Fellow recited my history, stroked one of his fingers down my injured finger. And then declared that I would need surgery. I pushed back – really? The Fellow thought it would probably get better after six months, which concurred with what the ER doctor had said. The surgeon looked at me with great condescension: you can get a second opinion, he said, if your insurance company will pay for it, but they will agree with me. Just don’t wait too long, unless you are prepared to live with the pain for the rest of your life. And breezed out. Total face time: less than 5 minutes – and that long only because I had pushed back on the idea of surgery.
I didn’t get the second opinion. I scheduled the surgery and the pre-surgery visit, did the PT and soaked my hand faithfully every morning and night. And do you know what? It started to get better. It got so much better that I pushed the surgery out and tried to reschedule the pre-surgery, but the pre-surgery unit wouldn’t reschedule until they received a confirmation from the surgeon’s scheduling assistant. So I waited to hear back from them. Just as I was about to reschedule the surgery again, the surgeon’s scheduling assistant called to accuse me of failing to make my pre-surgery appointment. I explained that, when I had tried, they had said that they couldn’t do that until they had heard from her but she was having none of it. So I cancelled the surgery and made a follow-up office appointment instead, for the first appointment of the morning so I wouldn’t be waiting around for four hours again.
This time, when I showed up, they were upgrading their electronic record-keeping system. It must have been stressful because they had extra receptionists on-duty and the entire team was clearly under the impression that all of their patients were deaf and blind, because the entire 45 minutes that I waited in the waiting room, they talked about how the system wasn’t working, that it kept taking our personal data and putting it somewhere that they couldn’t find it, and how impatient we were and how unreasonable we were to want to know at 10:30 when we might be seen for our 10 am appointments. Appointments, plural. Apparently, it is the policy of the surgeon to schedule multiple appointments at the same time because why keep one patient waiting, when you can keep several waiting.
Eventually I moved into an exam room where I met with a physician’s assistant. I told him my hand seemed to have gotten better and I didn’t think I needed surgery after all and wanted to confirm it with the doctor. He explained that they were a little behind schedule. I said I had waited four hours the last time and wouldn’t be doing that again and had already been there an hour. He said it would be at least another hour before the surgeon would see me. I thanked him for his time, told him that I was leaving and that I would not expect a bill.
I know I should forgive this experience. I should forgive the hotshot surgeon for treating his patients so unsympathetically. I should forgive his staff for following his example and talking rudely about us as if we couldn’t hear them. Were they intentionally rude? No, some people are intentionally rude (like a grocery cashier I once heard declare, loudly, “I just love pissing customers off.”), they were just trapped in their own frame of reference in a culture that probably starts at the top.
We all have stories like this. Stories of bad customer service, of insensitive professionals. Stories of how we were wronged by our experience with them.
When we learn to forgive people for treating us like this, we release ourselves from being trapped in the past, from being attached to the idea that we were treated badly. I almost find it harder to forgive people for these situations where they don’t even know they need forgiveness, where they have already completely forgotten me, than to forgive my cat for biting my hand every time that I reach to turn off the bedside light (Pam!).
Several years ago I made a decision not to tell stories like this anymore, not to make them part of who I was. I worked hard at it because I was tired of being the crank who always complained. As I worked on this skill, I realized how much it takes you out of the moment, how you stop experiencing your life because you are too busy remembering the past or worrying about the future (what if I get treated like that again?). When I made the switch and started experiencing my life, I noticed so much, so many beautiful things around me even amongst the mundane walks to work, moments that brought me joy or drew forth my compassion. Life became more enjoyable and, to some extent, I felt like time had slowed down and I had more control over my actions, because I had time to reflect and choose how I would respond.
It’s time to return to living in the now. And that starts with forgiveness.
And the first step is forgiveness.