Sunday, October 30, 2005

In Search of Grace and Forgiveness

Sarah is a 20 something single mom of a seven year old little boy. She is an exuberant, gifted young woman who is fully bilingual, has many marketable skills, excellent interpersonal talents and has a strong presence. I was drawn to her the first time she walked into my office 18 months ago, seemingly full of confidence with a strong streak of independence. That shield dropped quickly as she openly shared her story. For, despite her many talents, Sarah had found herself on social assistance, with little hope of finding employment. Why? She had stolen money from her employer and was being charged with theft. The possibility of incarceration loomed over her at the time of our first session.

In the fall of 2003, Sarah was struggling financially. Her partner had left her with the sole responsibility of the care of their son, and with a big debt. Rent was too steep for her to manage on her own, and she was getting behind on her bills. Instead of reaching out to her family, she tried to deal with her situation on her own. Pride and denial drove her deeper into a financial quagmire until one day she received a last notice from the Hydro company stating that her power was to be turned off within a week unless her bill was paid in full.

There was a money float of petty cash in the government office where she worked as an administrative receptionist. She decided to "borrow" the money to pay the bill, with the intentions of repaying it before anyone noticed it missing. More bills came in. More threats from companies. More pressure to manage her life and look after her son piled on her. She was very stressed, and very tired from lack of sleep. Worried and not thinking straight at all, Sarah "borrowed" more money. She kept her head in the sand, not admitting that she was stealing until 3 months later, just before Christmas, reality slammed into her. She was in way over her head and had no means to pay the money back. She then turned to her mother and her aunt and told them the story. Undoubtedly they were taken aback by it all, but quickly arranged to support her by loaning her the money to pay the government office back in full.

The next day, Sarah went straight into her Manager's office and confessed. She explained to her that she would have the money back in full by the end of the week. Her Manager was shocked, mostly because Sarah doesn't "fit" the picture one has of a thief, but informed Sarah that she would have to report the incident to her superior. Expecting this response, Sarah wrote a long letter to the Minister and Deputy Minister of her department explaining the circumstances, describing how badly she felt about it, and that she had full intentions of paying it back. She thought that given her unblemished track record up until then, the fact that she got along with everyone, that she worked hard etc, that they would reconsider pursuing the matter with the local authorities. Unfortunately, when management did an accounting of all petty cash withdrawals etc, they found that 3 times as much money had been siphoned off than Sarah was admitting to. They didn't believe her when she told them she didn't take that amount, and quickly contacted the police and pressed charges.

I listened to her story and was perplexed for many reasons , but mostly because I knew that if I had been in the same situation, I may have done the same thing. She was no different than me. In fact, we had clicked because we shared similar personality qualities. Given that she really had nothing to lose by telling me her version of the events, and she seemed gracious and full of remorse, I intuitively believed her. We talked at length about her fears of the impending court hearing, and the reality that she was now living on a small fixed income with no possibility of working for a while until she knew where things were headed. It was grim.

Our conversation then shifted gears as I offered her some hope by arranging for her to meet with a Career Counsellor to explore the possibility of going to university. We talked about her dream of obtaining her degree. It was exactly what I had envisioned for her while we talked and I shared that with her. This bonded our interaction even more. I encouraged her to take the opportunity to focus on her future dreams after the nightmare and penance were over. Then, I gave her the name of her Case Manager, gave her a hug and wished her well.

2 months went by. We didn't meet again, but I kept up to date on her situation. Sarah made the front page of the local paper. She was not going to jail. Instead, she received 6 months in-house arrest, and 6 months probation after that. I called her at home that day to see how she was. Relieved but still shaking and upset she was ready to serve her time. I told her that I was thinking about her and let her know that she could call me anytime.

I never heard from her directly throughout her house arrest period, but knew through the grapevine, that she had enrolled at University September 2004, amazingly starting while still under house arrest and managed to successfully complete her first year. Then two weeks ago, a colleague happened to mention that her morning appointment to apply for childcare subsidy had cancelled because she had withdrawn from university. Because I'm nosey..............I asked who it was. It was Sarah. This colleague was new. She had no idea that I would have had any previous contact. It seemed like a fluke, but as soon as I heard Sarah's name, I knew that I had to act. I wanted to act. I called her promptly to invite her in to talk. Her response was one of surprise and gratitude that I had remembered her and that I cared.

On Thursday of this week, Sarah was back in my office armed with two coffees and a hungry eagerness to talk. In-house arrest was very tough. But, she did it and learned from the experience. She spoke of the incessant need to be self-directed and disciplined during the circumstances. She spoke of the loss of dignity and respect, the feeling of always being monitored, the bottomless sense of freedom she felt when it was over, her relationship with her Probation Officer and how she is still in touch with them (that's a first, I'm sure). Most importantly, she described the impact that the whole awful episode had on her son. He had taken the brunt of the emotional turmoil and was acting it out in school, on the playground, and at home. Sarah felt that she had to withdraw from school, find employment and be present for her son. He needed her, and she needed to have regular work hours to offer him a more secure and predictable home life.

Throughout the conversation, Sarah sprinkled it with comments about forgiveness; finding forgiveness, forgiving herself, believing others have forgiven her, searching for a sense of calm that forgiveness provides. Ridding the guilt. She hasn't found it yet. In fact, she has experienced the freeze out by a potential employer that had initially sought her out and was on the verge of offering her a very good job opportunity. But when Sarah openly told them her whole story, the door was slammed shut. And it hurt. She was stung. So, she continues to to search for the grace to forgive herself and move on, still hopeful that someone out there will give her a chance at redemption.

What are the seeds of forgiveness? Empathy, compassion, understanding, trust, and believing all come to mind. From that grows hope, and a sense of connecting with humanity. Forgiveness can cut the cords and let the oppressive burden of guilt roll away. One is able to unlock the heart, to be able to give and express again.

I believe in Sarah, and am cognizant of the fact that my belief in her stems from identifying with a kindred spirit, which may bias my vision of her. However, I am confident in my counselling ability to recognize her honesty and goodness. We are meeting again next week, and will continue to meet until she finds that elusive personal forgiveness. It will happen, and I want to be there when it does.

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