I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a man came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if it’s really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about forgiveness and letting go.
As soon as we walked in, we could see that the landlord was right to threaten eviction and we were right to help him. It was too much to overlook and too much for one man to clean. He was a major hoarder. I can’t even begin to describe everything we saw, but what really got me was the pile of apple cores by his chair. This guy must’ve really liked apples and every time he ate one, he would throw the core on the floor and never pick it up. The pile was, and I’m not exaggerating, as high as the arm of the chair. There were worms and flies and mold, and it stunk in a way you would never expect a pile of apples to smell.
We got right to work and in a few hours, we had straightened and cleaned things to the point where he would not become homeless. As we cleared out the junk, and the apple cores, we discovered that, despite his hoarding, something important was missing. He didn’t have a garbage can.
There was one more thing we knew we had to do before we were done helping this man. It was not enough just to help him clean. We knew we had to get him some garbage cans; three, in fact; one for every room in his apartment. I thought I was wise to put one by his easy chair where he dropped the apples.
A year later, I was still facilitating the same group and we had many of the same members in it. In some ways they all had made progress, I thought, until the day the same man came in and said he was at risk of being evicted again.
“My landlord says my place is a mess. It’s a health hazard,” he said.
“But we cleaned your place. Have you been using the garbage cans?”
“Yes,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself.
When I got to his apartment, I encountered a familiar smell. The stench was the same as before. Indeed, he had been using the garbage cans. In fact, there was the one by his chair, right where I had placed it, filled to overflowing with apples. He had been using the garbage cans, just like he said. He just hadn’t been emptying them.
It’s easy to say that this man is not like you. I’m sure you would never let your apartment get in this condition. Well, maybe you wouldn’t; but there are plenty of people who let their lives get to this point and they see nothing wrong in it.
For instance, some let their lives become unmanageable by hoarding grudges. They get to the point where they are filled with pointless anger and resentment. Things continue in this way until they decide one day to forgive, so they forgive and think that’ll take care of it.
Deciding to forgive does take care of things for a little while, but you can’t help but have angry, resentful feelings from time to time. Deciding to forgive is a lot like deciding to get a garbage can for your apartment: an important and necessary step, but not, in the long run, sufficient. As long as you generate those angry and resentful feelings, you have to empty the trash.