Lent, observed by several Christian denominations, is the 40 day period (excluding Sundays) before Easter. The purpose of Lent is the preparation for Easter through prayer, penitence and self-denial. Growing up in the Catholic Church, Lent to me meant giving up something that I really liked, typically candy, popcorn, cookies or other pleasurable indulgences. In all those attempts, I don’t think I ever was able to abstain completely from such delectations during the Lenten season. Well into my adulthood, however, I discovered that Lent is more than a period of fasting, or not taking in the things we like, but also those things that set us back…
As a psychiatrist, I have been court-ordered from time to time to perform sanity evaluations on mentally ill individuals who have been arrested for serious, typically violent, offenses. One particular assessment stands out. I can’t recall the exact year, which is surprising, considering the enormity of the milestone in my ongoing, though often interrupted, spiritual journey, but I believe it was 2010. Recently, during a Lenten fellowship meeting at my church, in which I spontaneously provided a testimony about the avatar of God’s grace, do I now feel compelled to further share this experience beyond that small gathering.
On a Thursday prior to Easter, referred to as Maundy Thursday in my religion, I was contacted by a secretary at the clinic. She prefaced her announcement with an apology, and then proceeded to report the “bad news” that a court order to perform a sanity evaluation of a detainee at the local prison had suddenly been discovered amidst a stack of unfiled documents. It had originally been delivered to the clinic by certified mail about 6 weeks earlier, but never made it to my mailbox. Unfortunately, the bad news was that a report was due on Monday following Easter, which essentially allowed only one work day, Friday, to conduct the evaluation. Needless to say, I was particularly peeved about the short notice, as I had several secular activities planned on what had been intended to be a vacation day in preparation for an upcoming beach trip. But being a dutiful servant to the court, I begrudgingly agreed to do the evaluation.
Having tediously completed the examination in a few hours, I was organizing my notes in the nurse’s station at the prison, when I noticed another individual, who had just been processed for admission following an arrest, walking through a corridor toward his cell. He had a strangely familiar look of someone from my past, and surprisingly quickly, I recalled him by name. Subsequently, I asked the head nurse if I indeed had been correct about his identity which he, in fact, confirmed. He further elaborated in a rather perfunctory manner, that this person was a “frequent flyer”, meaning he had been a regular customer of the detention center. Some of his offenses had included previous convictions for manslaughter, armed robbery, rape, assault, and burglary. Despite all of these judgments, he had apparently been a free man for a short time prior to being arrested yet again, this time on a drug possession charge. Be that as it may, upon verification by the nurse, I suddenly felt a release of what Socrates described as “ill humors”, and considered mercilessly confronting this vermin of humanity in an act of vengeance. Why would I contemplate doing such a thing, especially in the role of a supposedly self-controlled and seasoned psychiatrist? Because, in that minute or two, I had ceased being a professional and retreated to a specific traumatic moment from my adolescence, which I thought I had permanently buried.
You see, for what seemed a lifetime ago, this goon had assaulted me for no reason other than carelessly allowing me to catch a touchdown pass in an inconsequential, intramural football game on an otherwise beautiful Spring day during my sophomore year (one that I resentfully endured at a high school which I had been ordered to attend in accordance with federally mandated desegregation policies of that time). Anyway, following the catch, with my back turned to him in a defenseless position, he viciously slugged me in the head, without justifiable provocation, leaving me in a briefly unconscious state after falling to the ground. I clearly had sustained a concussion, and experienced intermittent symptoms of nausea, headaches and dizziness for several weeks following that incident. Nonetheless, I somehow managed to gather myself from that experience, probably rationalizing that I would not be attending that school the following year, and never gave it a serious thought in all of the years that had subsequently transpired…until that Friday at the prison.
Well, I evidently composed myself enough that day to refrain from doing what I had considered, gathered my notes and headed out to the prison parking lot in a drizzling, cold rain, which only added to my misery on that memorable Friday. As I was about to put my car into gear and depart, I was unexpectedly struck with an instantaneous realization that all of this had happened for a reason. There were simply too many pieces of this story culminating together to occur on that day, Good Friday, that could be explained away as mere happenstance or chance. And upon that awareness, my seething fury and vitriol had immediately been vanquished and replaced by a catharsis of tears underlain with a rapid transition of emotions, from shame, to humility and finally a joyful gratitude of God’s grace and a long overdue appreciation for the spiritually liberating power of forgiveness. After all, some 2000 years earlier, my Savior, Jesus Christ, made the ultimate sacrifice to be publicly humiliated, falsely convicted and tortured to death, so that all who believe in Him, then and until the end of time on this earth, would be granted eternal life. His final words before breathing His last breath were "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In retrospect, I now wonder how many subsequent instances of disproportionate and perhaps displaced anger that I had felt in reaction to a triggering circumstance, were the result of not forgiving my assailant sooner.
I’d like to conclude with a Lenten meditation from Arthur Lichtenberger, who was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1958-1964. I think it very simply yet profoundly embodies the spirit of having a healthy character, regardless of your religious beliefs:
Fast from criticism, and Feast on praise;
Fast from self-pity, and Feast on joy;
Fast from ill-temper, and Feast on peace;
Fast from resentment, and Feast on contentment;
Fast from jealousy, and Feast on humility;
Fast from pride, and Feast on love;
Fast from selfishness, and Feast on service;
Fast from fear, and Feast on faith.
Scott Zentner, MD
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