Humans Anonymous

Taking Inventory

[This post is the fifth in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. The first installment can be found here; links to successive articles can be found at the end of each post.]

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

One of the great insights of systems theory is the notion of driving and restraining forces. Driving forces are those things which encourage change, while restraining forces are those things which inhibit or hinder change. For instance, if you are considering buying a new car, a driving force might be the unreliability or poor fuel economy of your current vehicle, while a restraining force might be the lack of money in your monthly budget for a car payment. Systems theory holds that systems tend toward equilibrium, with driving and restraining forces in balance, and that for change to occur, the driving forces have to outweigh the restraining forces. Furthermore, rather than attempting to increase the driving forces to encourage change, it is often easier and more beneficial to remove the smallest restraining force. Even this small shift in equilibrium will create change, and make the removal of other restraining forces easier.

In a sense, this is what the 4th Step, “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” is all about. Having made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him, we seek to understand those things in our character that serve as restraining forces, things that get in the way of a fuller relationship with God and with our fellow humans. We do this as a prelude to asking God to remove these “defects of character”; after all, if self is the problem, self cannot be the solution. We also do this recognizing that we will never be completely free of these things, but in the belief that by being aware of them we can come to a place where they no longer drive us into blindly repeating the same patterns of behavior which are harmful to our spirits, to our relationship with God and to our relationships with others.

This talk of character defects may immediately put us on the defensive. “Hey now, wait just a minute! I’m not perfect, sure, I make my share of mistakes. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with my character!” I’ve felt some of the same resistance myself. I put off doing my 4th Step inventory for weeks. It wasn’t until I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I seriously thought I was going to drink again that I finally put pen to paper and started writing. Many of my friends in recovery relate similar experiences. I’ve also noticed a common thread in the stories of those who have survived relapses and make it back to recovery; most will admit that they never did a thorough, searching and fearless moral inventory. Perhaps Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

In the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. writes about this reluctance to undertake this step:

“So when A.A. suggests a fearless moral inventory, it must seem to every newcomer that more of him is being asked of him than he can do. Both his pride and his fear beat him back every time he tries to look within himself. Pride says, ‘You need not pass this way!”, and Fear says, “You dare not look!”

Pride and fear. These things probably kill more addicts and alcoholics than anything else, and they destroy the spiritual wellbeing of plenty of non-addicted people, too.

The goal is not some unreasonably high, unattainable level of spiritual perfection. As long as we are human, we will sin either by commission or omission. We are going to make mistakes. Many people, though, if they take an honest look at their lives, will admit that not only do they make mistakes, but that they find themselves making the same mistakes repeatedly. While the circumstances or people involved may change, the root problem remains. Take, for instance, the person who moves from one abusive relationship to another; or the one with the “short fuse” who continuously flies off the handle over insignificant setbacks; or the employee who continuously complains about one bad boss after another. Is it not possible that the root problem lies within? Early on in my sobriety, I was complaining loudly to my sponsor about just about everyone around me. He let me ramble on for a while, and when I finally paused for breath, he asked me a simple question. “Bob, do you know what all of those people have in common?” he asked. “That they’re idiots?” I responded. “No, probably not,” he answered. “The one thing all of those people have in common is you.”

It is important to remember that the goal of the moral inventory is not humiliation, but rather humility. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” The goal of the moral inventory is not to engage in an orgy of self-flagellation over every flaw and imperfection in our personalities. Rather, it is to be aware of those manifestations of selfishness and self-centeredness that get in the way of our communion with God and with others. I will look at some of those manifestations, along with a practical method of self-inventory, in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Taking Inventory

  1. Pingback: Made A Decision | Stir

  2. Pingback: Hot Coals & Mental Murder | Stir

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