The Four Things That Matter Most : A Book About Living
By Ira Byock, M.D.
"Please forgive me" and "I forgive you" can be the toughest two of the Four Things to say. And yet few of us will live a full life without the need to say both. The need to forgive and be forgiven simply means that we're not perfect. If we listen to our hearts we know that in the relationships that matter most there will often be instances of anger or, at least, serious misunderstandings that cause hurt. Sometimes the bad things and bad feelings that happen between people are more serious. One doesn't have to be Sigmund Freud or Frasier Crane to realize that we live in a world filled with people in emotional pain.
My years of clinical work in palliative care and in emergency medicine have driven home, again and again, that, as we grow up and age, each of us is emotionally scarred to some extent. Most of these injuries heal, but some don't. These sore spots may be as mundane and beyond our control as feeling that we never lived up to a father's unreasonable expectations, or that we aren't tall enough or pretty enough. We might blame ourselves for never having followed or fulfilled a lifelong dream. Some old wounds from our youth may be mostly closed-or so we think, until a careless, casual remark by a parent, sibling, or close friend "picks the scab" and reminds us of the hurt we still carry. The wounds associated with infidelities, lies, divorces, libels, and lawsuits tend to be open and obvious. And many people also carry wounds carved by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
It is no surprise then that forgiveness is so often at the heart of completing relationships and finding peace. We may need to forgive in order for the relationship to continue and we may need to forgive to close the relationship in a healthy way. Forgiveness is a passage to a sanctuary of wholeness, that nurturing place where we feel intimately connected to the people who matter most to us. It is a place of healing and transformation. In it, we feel the perfect fullness of the present.
In medicine, healing refers to restoring a person to a natural state of health and wholeness. Physical wounds occur when an accident or injury disrupts the integrity of a person's skin and subcutaneous tissue. In cleaning the wound of dirt and infected tissue, the natural wisdom of the body is able to reestablish the tissue's integrity. When it does, we say that the wound is healed.
A similar process occurs with emotional wounds. Healing is effected when the toxic material in the rift between two people has been cleansed and they are able to reestablish a sense of closeness. Forgiving is an act of cleansing that enables the wisdom within us to reach out and reconnect with people we once loved.
One night over dinner, Carla, an old friend, and I were discussing my ideas for this book about saying the Four Things before good-bye. She told me a powerful story of forgiveness and its potential to transform us.
"The Sweetest Man"
Carla is a successful architect from Chicago, the wife of my friend Julian. Her father had died ten years earlier of pancreatic cancer, just as my father had.
"Dad was dead in less than two weeks from his first real symptoms," said Carla. "He was the sweetest man in the world-and one of the most unhappy."
Carla's description of growing up in the suburbs west of Boston in the 1950s evoked the kind of American family depicted in the Chevrolet ads of that era: her father in a checkered shirt, sweater vest, and dark slacks, smoking a pipe while he watered the lawn; her mother in a cardigan and pleated skirt, waving from the front door, holding a freshly baked pie; Carla playing hopscotch on the front walk and her younger brother, Paul, pulling his red Radio Flyer wagon; a happy active home life that revolved around bright, well-groomed children.