By nature I am, like most counselors, tolerant and compassionate, not just with clients, but with people in general.
I offer genuine concern and care, and hopefully helpful guidance in navigating emotionally rough terrain and relationally chaotic waters.
I don’t respond well, however, to having someone (client or not) deceive or manipulate me to take advantage of my flexibility and kindness. I’m grateful that 99% of therapy clients are expressive of their appreciation and are reliable in paying on time for services. Then there is the 1%.
A breach of trust
In recent months I have felt like the bishop in Les Miserables who shows hospitality to just-released convict, Jean Valjean, only to be rewarded for his generosity with assault and theft. A client who could well-afford my services and whom I believed to be trustworthy assured me that his insurance company would be sending me payment for our sessions. I provided the client with invoices with proper documentation and diagnostic codes. Perhaps naively, I continued offering counsel week after week, not allowing the delay in payment to prevent him from getting support and guidance through an ongoing crisis.
In January, without explanation, the client ceased counseling, stopped replying to or even acknowledging my expressed concern about his situation and well-being, and did not acknowledge or reply to re-sent invoices and request for payment. A very public person, it was not difficult for me to confirm that the person was not incapacitated in any way, and none of his contact info had changed. He was simply ignoring my communication (call, text, email) and request for explanation and payment. It is now apparent that this affluent person does not intend to pay his large counseling bill or offer any explanation of his actions.
A few days ago I sent identical certified letters to two different addresses where he could be reached. I don’t expect a response but at least I’ll be able to confirm receipt of the letters.
A change of heart
This morning my pastor preached on the giving of mercy. He quoted the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of mercy: “Compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” The pastor went on to unpack Luke 6:35-36 which reads, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
OK, I’m not ready to give (lend) counseling services to everyone without expecting anything in return. Counseling is my livelihood. Furthermore, I already often discount my fee or even drop the fee altogether for those who are in a real financial bind. A teaching issue that often comes up with my clients about their relationships is the setting of healthy expectations and boundaries lest inappropriate behavior be accepted and enabled.
So, I struggle with being merciful in this particular matter, questioning whether I’m just wanting to avoid conflict and/or if in giving mercy I am sending a message that deception and theft is acceptable, perhaps even enabling such behavior in his future dealing with others. In forgiving this client’s debt, would I be merciful or careless? I must admit that my shadow self has imagined creative ways to “punish or harm” this person for their crime.
The high cost of bitterness
I’m mindful of Frederick Buechner’s statement about anger: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Apart from what this client owes me in overdue payment for therapy, I could charge him rent for the space in my head he has occupied in recent months, a room well-furnished with anger and decorated with resentment.
But I’m ready to be free. At some point a person has to determine what inner peace and restored joy is worth. I’ve decided that the emotional and spiritual value of my peace and joy exceeds the monetary value of his overdue check.
A model of mercy
In the 1998 film version of Les Miserables when a captured Jean Valjean is returned to the bishop by the French police, the bishop has the opportunity and certainly every reason to prosecute the bully and thief, resulting in a life sentence or possibly execution.
Instead, the bishop inexplicably tells the commanding officer that he indeed gave the silverware settings to Jean Valjean. And then the real stunner — the bishop not only doesn’t prosecute Valjean; he not only allows Valjean to keep the stolen silverware; but he gives Valjean the church’s valuable silver candelabras, and sets him free … but not before leaving the shocked and speechless man with these words:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from hate and evil. And know I give you back to God.”
The bishop does not excuse or minimize Valjean’s betrayal. Rather, he looks betrayal in its guilty face and extends the hand of mercy and grace. (Mercy is not receiving the punishment you deserve. Grace is actually receiving a gift instead of the deserved punishment.) Jean Valjean’s response to being a recipient of grace in that moment was to become a dispenser of grace for the rest of his life. Valjean continually modeled and offered to others a mercy modeled and given to him.
It occurs to me now that there were actually two men in the story who were released by grace into freedom and peace — the forgiven man who went on his journey as well as the forgiver who stayed behind. Today, I choose to forgive. Today I choose freedom and peace.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Presson’s previous columns go to www.franklinhomepage.com/?s=ramon+presson