It is a region consistently ranked high on happiness indexes, boasting of year long summers, and a lifestyle that would paralyze the East Coast in its calmness.
That such a place could house any patients to treat unhappiness would be surprising to many.
Yet Miranda was a board certified psychiatrist in the bay area of California.
With a packed client base and more waiting in the queue, Miranda served as a ideal stranger with whom they could feel naked with their thoughts.
The angelic investors and tech executives lived in the gleaming affluence of silicon valley; the poor in its shadows. Much like happiness, wealth is a fleeting satisfaction and Miranda’s patients did not hesitate to dish out close to $300 an hour to hear her speak.
It was imperative that she maintain a sound barrier between herself and her patients. For every appointment, she made notes on her laptop, checked off on some papers, and circled out the medications that best fit the case. Advice was rendered with minimal emphasis and in brief sentences.
“I feel so alone. Even in the midst of family and friends. Am I going to get better?”
“Socialize in new circles to reduce your loneliness. Let’s increase your dosage and see how you feel next month.”
“My mind is heavy with thoughts of my failures. I feel paralyzed. What should I do?”
“Try a new hobby to divert your mind, and maintain your current treatment.”
Once she wrote out the prescription, her walls came down and she realized that she had to partake in the most difficult appointment of all – to live with herself.
On most days after work, she would drive down to her boyfriend’s place. There were obvious signs that he was cheating on her but she had shared far too many details about herself to love anyone else. She gave her body easily to him, unable to stop herself from every act of intimacy.
One day in particular, she found herself stopped by a cop car.
“Officer, I wasn’t speeding.”
“Lady, did you not see the school bus with the flashing STOP sign? It is state law to stop on both sides.”
After noting her license and registration number, he handed her a ticket that stipulated that she must complete one month of community service in addition to paying state regulated fines.
If she didn’t complete the service, she was liable to losing her driving privileges for a year.
The next day, she entered a poorly renovated building and found herself waiting in a tiny room with a teenage girl and a man with heavily tattooed arms and legs.
After an hour wait, she was asked to enter an even tinier room. The old man behind the desk had a large head of white hair and brown spots near his eyes and chin.
“Hello Miranda. My name is Mr. Urgu. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a psychiatrist.”
“Ah, the mind doctor. We all have loopy stuff goin’ on in our heads, don’t we?”
He chuckled and revealed his perfect set of white dentures that matched his hair.
“Folks like you will always be in business. Everyone can talk to their gadgets but few have the guts to listen to themselves.”
She smiled politely, hoping to end the discussion then and there.
“But lady, tell me one thing — where do you go for your problems? You got no one, do you?”
He chuckled once again.
After rummaging through the files on his desk, he presented her with a manila colored envelope.
She found a single page inside with the following letters in large font.
“The Forgiveness Project.”
On the back side was an address and Mr. Urgu’s phone number in case she had any questions.
On day one of her service, she found a group of 2 men and 2 women sitting idly in their chairs.
Assuming they were all present to fulfill their own service requirements, she asked one of the men what they were expected to do in the barren looking room.
“Lady, we were told that you would be our counselor for the next four weeks.”
Confused by the man’s words, Miranda decided to call up Mr. Urgu at the government building. But no one picked up.
“They told us you could help if we told you our problems,” the other man added.
Realizing that the service was tied to her profession, she decided to proceed on her own accord.
“Ok, let’s get this over with. How about we start with a simple introduction?”
Javier was thirty something former drug addict who was jailed for 10 years in possession of an illegal drug, even though it was wrongly placed in the trunk of his vehicle by a fellow gang member.
Lisa, of Taiwanese descent, was in her mid-twenties. As a teenager, she fell in love with a young Chinese businessman who left her when he discovered she was pregnant with their child.
Kalyani was a young refugee from Bangladesh whose parents died in the midst of religious riots.
Marvin, with greying hair that contrasted with his black complexion, was the oldest of the lot. Once a bright college kid who wanted to be a writer, he had no option but to write-off his life to the Army so he could attend college. As a soldier, he had served time in war torn countries of the past. His prosthetic leg was barely noticeable till he pointed it out to the group.
Over the course of the four weeks, she learned more about each of the participants, and in turn learned a bit more about herself.
Kalyani was granted asylum in the US. Though she had only lived in the States for over a year, she already felt assimilated into its culture.
“Madam, don’t you think we are all wrought up in defending an identity we have no control over?”
She had an obvious formality in her voice.
“Why do you think that Kalyani?”
Kalyani spoke in length about her alienation in her hometown of Dhaka where as a Hindu, differences were made on the pretext of man-made barriers of hate.
“Has being away from home helped you grieve?”
“Distance doesn’t solve the problem because my mind is yet to forgive my parent’s murderers.”
“How do you feel about living in the US?”
“Toni Morrison once said that in this country, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate. She is right but I still feel more at home here than I ever did in my native country.”
“Because America is a unique in that we are all outsiders. It made me realize that our features, birthplace, gender all should add to our being, not serve as a barrier in connecting with others. South Asia, with its history of partitions, still struggles greatly with this concept. No partition can erase the homogeneity of our roots.”
Javier was next to disclose more about himself. He briefly mentioned how he decided to go back to school right after he was released from jail. A non-profit paid part of his fees for a community college course as he earned the rest from janitorial duties at a hospital.
“Javier, do you feel angry with the system for denying you justice?”
“I was angry the whole time I was behind bars. But once I got out, I decided to do something with the time I had left. No point crying about it anymore.”
The group clapped when he announced that he had just graduated a few months ago.
He was now working as a nurse in the same hospital he once cleaned for.
“Why did you become a nurse?”
“To let go of my ego. I caused a whole lot of pain to others as a gang member. But now, my patients know that I will help them, not hurt them.”
Javier’s testimonial made Miranda realize that if we must invest our time in some activity, it is to create something, tangible or not, that aids others, especially folks that are not close to you and therefore, you derive no direct benefit from helping them. This is what he achieved with his patients.
In this release of Javier’s ego, he no longer needed a defense. His actions spoke for him.
Lisa was the quietest one of the group. Inspired by Javier’s story, she gradually shared hers.
She found a job as an assistant to a female CEO and slowly moved her way up as a Manager in the same company.
She did not hesitate to shed many tears when she spoke of how the father of her child had abandoned her during a difficult stage in her life.
“Why do you think he left?”
She reasoned that she had stopped reasoning completely and moved on.
“I tried being rational about a lot of things for a long time Miranda. It got me no where.”
Miranda found her theory a bit difficult to digest since she had maintained a rational outlook as a doctor to all her patients.
“If something good happens, you have a reason usually merited in your favor. If something bad, you have one for that too to placate your heart. Someone wonderful may marry you and you will say –well, it was our destiny to be lovers. Then same person may leave you broken-hearted and you will say – it was all meant for the best. You can lose a loved one and blame fate. Or a loved one may recover and you may welcome it. So which reason is correct Miranda?”
“Lisa, I never thought of that way.”
“Ah, thoughts. The mind continues its chatter. It was only when I learned to quieten my mind that I heard a new voice.”
Having plenty patients who suffered from hallucinatory noises, Miranda was curious to know about this positive voice of guidance.
“Which voice Lisa?”
Though all had unique backgrounds, Marvin was the only one who had legally killed in his job.
“Orders are orders. The gun is fired before you can even blink your eye.”
“How do you feel about it now?”
“Can you forgive yourself?”
“I am trying. I always remind myself of one quote from one of my favorite books on war.”
“Would you like to share it with the group?”
He stood up to narrate, so as to give the late German author the respect he deserved.
“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and same agony – Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy?”
Marvin narrated each word with such heartfelt empathy that Miranda didn’t realize her cheeks were wet with tears, much like the rest of the group. The next few words were Marvin’s own.
“I have trekked miles barefoot, carried soldiers twice my weight, and here I am today with all of you practicing one of the hardest things in my life – forgiveness.”
By the last week of her service, Kalyani, Javier, Lisa, and Marvin collectively forgave the wrong-doing inflicted on them – the killers of loved ones, the gang member who ruined a man’s life, the deserting lover and last but not least, oneself.
As diverse as they were, they echoed each other sentiments – that while circumstances influence our actions, every man and woman is genuinely good at heart.
Forgiving is a natural step to release one from his or her man-made prisons.
Over the course of the project, Miranda was challenged to speak beyond her few sentences of empathy.
Each individual played their part to tear down the barriers she had insulated herself in.
She revisited her profession as a new Miranda.
The first day back at work, she did not visit her boyfriend after work. Instead, she took a detour to a place one she did not have the courage to visit before – a graveyard.
When she found her mother’s grave, she paused in silence. Repressed incidents of her mother’s abuse and ultimate suicide surfaced in her consciousness. In those passing moments – Miranda evoked forgiveness for all the pain she suffered and yet, could never express to her.
For this act of forgivness, she had one important person to thank — the old man at the Government Service Center who knew this Project was best suited to her. She rang his number but like before, there was no response.
She decided to visit him in person. When she reached the shabby looking office building and waited outside his room, she was surprised to see a new name on his door.
When the woman inside called her in, Miranda discovered that no old man with that name or description had ever worked in that building before.
Lisa was right.
Miranda had experienced a miracle that rationality would dismiss. Mr. Urgu was no ordinary man. He was an angelic guru in her life.
She said “Thank you” to the lady and walked back to her car, smiling along the way.