[This post is the eighth 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.]
I’ve moved a lot over the last fifteen years or so, and I’ve noticed that some boxes never really seem to go away. As I am in the process of unpacking from my most recent move, I’ve opened some boxes that haven’t been opened since I moved back to the east coast six years ago. I’ve also discovered a box of old notebooks from seminary that I’ve been holding onto “because I might need them some day,” and one or two boxes of what might be called “miscellaneous unsorted crap,” a hodgepodge of junk thrown into a box at the last minute and never looked at again. These boxes are really no big deal. Except that they’re heavy. And they take up space I could be using for something else. And they contribute materially to the pain in my back and the exhaustion in my bones every time I move.
Having inventoried our resentments and our fears, we may be inclined to think that the heavy lifting of the moral inventory is complete, and to a degree it is. Before we are truly finished, however, we need to dig into the attics and basements of our lives and open up any remaining boxes of miscellaneous unsorted crap that remain. Remembering that selfishness and self-centeredness, manifested in various ways, is the at the root of so many of our difficulties, we resolutely look for other ways in which our bondage to self has reared its head, and we set these down on paper just as we did with our resentments and fears.
So how do we do this? One helpful suggestion is to consider the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins” (wrath, lust, gluttony, envy, pride, sloth and greed) as a framework for self-evaluation. Having covered resentments, we might be tempted to skip wrath. It is wise, though, so spend a little time reflecting on the times in our lives when we have been really angry, even if we no longer carry a resentment associated with the episode. Was our anger selfish or self-centered? Did it lead us to act in ways we shouldn’t? In what ways did our anger impede our relationships with God and others?
Lust is a particularly thorny topic. Opinions vary wildly about sex conduct, with the more extreme voices on either end of the spectrum verging on hysteria. So how do we inventory our sex conduct? It’s important to remember that sexuality is a gift from God, and as such, is not to be feared or despised, nor is it to be treated lightly or with disrespect. Going back over our lives, we take an honest look at our actions. Have we misused this gift for selfish ends? Have we been dishonest or inconsiderate in our sexual or romantic relations? Where we have erred, what should we have done instead?
We take the same approach with the other categories. Have we pursued pleasures in selfish ways to the detriment of ourselves or others? Has the good fortune of others aroused our jealousy rather than our joy on their behalf? Has our ego driven us to harmful behaviors, such as contempt for others or an unwillingness to admit our faults? Have we procrastinated doing things we should out of indolence? Has our desire for material security and wealth hampered our generosity to God or others?
Once we have completed this examination of our lives, we set it aside for a day or two, then come back to it, looking to see if we have left anything out. AAs working this step often told that “the only way you can do it wrong is to intentionally leave something off.” This is because the things we are most tempted to leave off are usually the things most vexing to us, the things that will continue to plague our consciences unless examined and dealt with. Any omissions through honest forgetfulness can be dealt with later when they come to mind, but the things we omit by design will continue to impede us. To return to the box analogy from earlier: a box we miss because it is forgotten in a corner of the attic can be opened and put away when we find it; the large box sitting in the middle of the living room that we consciously ignore will continue to get in our way.
Upon completing the inventory, many people feel unsettled. After all, in this process we have looked at some tough things, things that have to a greater or lesser degree robbed us of our peace of mind and hampered our relationships with God and with others. Thus, it is wise at this point to return to God in prayer, trusting in God’s unfailing love. Nothing on our inventories is a surprise to God, after all; God has loved us unconditionally through all of these things. Having done the hard work of inventory, we allow ourselves to rest for a time in that limitless love.