[This post is the ninth 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. Links to all articles in the series can be found by clicking here or by clicking the Humans Anonymous link under “Categories” on the right-hand side of this page.]
I remember, as a small child, getting a splinter stuck in my hand. I didn’t notice at the time, but within a day or two, the spot had become very sore and bright red. I showed it to my grandfather, who immediately got a pin from my grandmother’s sewing table and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, intending to dig the splinter out. To say I wasn’t crazy about this idea would be an understatement; in fact, I howled and resisted as much as I could. My grandmother, hearing the fuss, explained that it might hurt a little while the operation was proceeding, but that it was necessary in order for the wound to heal and assured me that, if I let my grandfather proceed, my hand would feel much better shortly. Though still extremely skeptical, I cooperated, trying to restrain my squirming as much as possible as he probed at the splinter, got the pin under it and eventually worked it out. Perhaps it is just the perspective afforded by over three decades of distance, but as I recall, the pain eased almost immediately, and by bedtime that night the wound was healing, no longer inflamed and completely pain free. Removing the offending foreign object enabled my body to heal itself.
Much the same principle is at work in the 5th Step of the recovery process: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Having completed a moral inventory, we now share the results of that inventory with God and with another person. This is a daunting prospect, even a terrifying one, for many people, but as with the removal of a splinter or other offending foreign object, it is indispensable to the healing process.
Many a recovering alcoholic or addict delays the inventory of Step 4 because of fear of Step 5. Still others complete Step 4 but delay or skip Step 5. This is not altogether surprising. Being completely open and honest with another person about our thoughts, feelings and actions, especially those we are not proud of, is a frightening thing. It calls for a willingness to be intensely vulnerable, to share things about ourselves that we think no one ought to know, and to drop the façade of perfection (or at least respectability) that we have been taught from childhood to cultivate. It is, to say the least, risky business.
The risks of not doing so, however, are infinitely greater. For people recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction, delaying or skipping Step 5 for any significant length of time often leads to relapse. Those lucky enough to return to sobriety, when analyzing the reasons for their relapse, can often point to some defect of character or past wrong they have committed but not shared which, eating away at their conscience, led to the kind of insane thinking that makes a drink or a drug seem like a viable option. The pain and self-loathing that comes from harboring secret shame is incredibly destructive, and not just to recovering alcoholics or addicts. “Confession is good for the soul” has become almost a cliché, but like most clichés, it has become so because it is true. Equally true is another aphorism common in recovery circles: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
Private confession is an important part of many spiritual traditions (despite the fact that large numbers of Protestant Christians are highly suspicious of it). Speaking for my own tradition, many Lutherans are almost rabidly opposed to the idea of any but the most generalized confession, despite the fact that Luther himself encourages individual confession in the Small Catechism, which was intended for widespread use in the home to teach the faith. Because of his own experience of a tortured conscience, Luther was opposed to people racking their souls searching for “hidden sins”, but encouraged the use of private confession as a means of relieving spiritual distress and finding consolation.
This sense of consolation is perhaps the most important reason for taking Step 5. If we have been diligent in our inventory, we have probably uncovered some things about ourselves that make us uncomfortable. Keeping those things to ourselves out of fear only serves to compound the problem. When we share them with a trustworthy person whom we know will keep our confidence, we no longer bear that burden alone. Since we are all recovering human beings, it is almost certain that the human being with whom we share our inventory can often relate to similar, if not identical, thoughts and feelings and will be kind enough to share them with us. This, too, serves to break the power of these defects by helping us to see that we are not alone in having them. Shining the light of shared humanity on the results of our inventory does much to dispel the darkness of shame that envelops many of our shortcomings. Furthermore, not being directly involved, such a person can provide helpful perspective on those things for which we might be inclined to beat ourselves up too harshly. Above all, in sharing our stories completely and honestly with another human being, we come to sense, sometimes for the first time, that we truly can be forgiven for the things which haunt us, and this sense is often the key step to being able to forgive ourselves.
On the other side of the coin, sharing our story with someone can help in the development of true humility by gently but firmly calling us to account on those things for which we might be inclined to give ourselves a free pass. As human beings, our talents for self-deception are enormous, and we can often convince ourselves that almost any action was justified. A wise counselor who understands our aim, namely spiritual growth, can help to counter this self-deception if we are willing to be completely honest with them. This process can help us to cultivate a sense of self-honesty, which, when tended to diligently, will do much to aid our spiritual growth.
How, then, do we actually go about this important step? First, we need to decide with whom we intend to share our inventory. Obviously such a person needs to be trustworthy and able to keep a confidence. We need to be able to trust that what we share will not come back to be used against us later. Many, if not most, recovering people choose to take this important step with their sponsor, who not only understands the object of the exercise but is also by this point familiar with at least the broad outlines of their story. Some, however, choose to share their inventory with a member of the clergy (in their own congregation or another), with a psychologist or psychiatrist, or another counselor. In rural areas where mental health professionals are scarce, members of the clergy often quietly make themselves available to the recovery community for those who prefer not to share with their sponsors. All of these routes are available to non-alcoholics or non-addicts who desire to take this step. If the person you choose is familiar with the principles of 12-Step recovery, so much the better; if not, it would be wise to explain to them the object of the exercise beforehand. It may even be helpful to refer them to recovery literature available online (such as Chapter Five and Chapter Six of Alcoholics Anonymous or Step Five in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) in preparation for the conversation.
Those concerned with absolute confidentiality may even choose to do this anonymously with a member of the clergy they do not know. A friend of mine who had such a concern did this step that way. Despite being completely non-religious, he called a large Roman Catholic parish in the next town and explained to one of the priests what he needed to do. The priest agreed to meet him at a picnic area in a local park, they did the step, and then they parted ways. To this day, the priest doesn’t know his name and the two have never crossed paths since. My friend (who gave me permission to share this story) has been sober for many years, and says that it was in that conversation that day that he first felt the tangible presence of God surrounding him.
It is generally advised that this step not be taken with a close friend or family member, particularly if they are mentioned on the inventory. To do so would heighten the risk of not being completely honest because the recipient might be hurt by what we have to say. Even more important, it would be unfair to that person to ask them to hear our inventory. There will be a time for making amends to those we have wronged, but this isn’t it.
My own experience of this step is one I treasure. I entered the conversation anxious and apprehensive, but desperate for relief from the emotional swings that were bedeviling me. An hour later, I walked out, feeling as though I was floating on air. I, too, felt the tangible presence of God, and felt as though some enormous roadblocks of long standing had been removed. As, in fact, they had.