Humans Anonymous

Prisons of Our Own Making

“I’m sorry.” These are two of the most powerful words in the English language, and yet, perversely, they are often two of the most difficult to say. Fear, shame and embarrassment often collude to make us avoid saying them, and resentment and anger can make it difficult for us to mean them. History is replete with examples of feuds caused by the inability or unwillingness of people to admit their own wrongs, and with stories of the damage caused by such feuds.

The negative impact of unresolved wrongs is not limited to our communion with other people, however; a refusal to admit our own wrongs has profound negative impacts on our communion with God as well. Because we are integrated, relational beings, the spider-web cracks of our broken relationships with others radiate into our relationship with God. Jesus drives this point home in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:21-26)

A guilty conscience is a prison of our own making. Until we make peace with our actions by facing them resolutely and unflinchingly, it doesn’t matter whether the cell is guarded or even locked; we keep ourselves locked in by our unwillingness to walk out.

Step Eight, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all,” is designed to prepare us to deal with broken relationships head-on. The first half of the step is concerned with making a complete list of people who have been negatively impacted by our actions. Having worked through the first seven steps, we have some idea of who belongs on this list. The work done on the moral inventory in Step Four is a foundation. However, there may be other people we have harmed but who did not appear on our resentments list, our fears list or elsewhere in that inventory. Therefore, it is wise to sit down again with pen and paper and look searchingly at our lives for people we have hurt.

Some of the people who go on this list will be obvious; parents, spouses, children or others close to us who have been negatively impacted by some behavior of ours. Others, particularly those further back, may not be so obvious. It is important, however, to remember the word all appears twice in this step, and that this is no accident. It behooves us to be as thorough as possible in identifying the people we have hurt. Just as in Step 4 we sought to shine a light into every nook and cranny of our lives, so in Step 8 we seek to have an honest and thorough accounting of any and all harm we have done.

A major roadblock to making such a list comes in the form of defensiveness. We can easily rationalize or minimize the harm we have done someone by saying to ourselves, “Yes, but she/he did such-and-such to me first.” This defensiveness is particularly difficult to overcome if it is based in fact, that is, if the other person has in fact harmed us in some way. However, it is important to remember that, for the purposes of this step, the other person’s behavior, good or bad, is utterly irrelevant. We’re not claiming a place on their list, we’re acknowledging their place on ours. If we have done harm to another person, however justified we may believe our actions to be, that person belongs on our list.

Another roadblock comes with the idea that we don’t want to reopen old wounds, that we should “let sleeping dogs lie,” especially if the other person is unaware of our bad behavior. Again, the point in this step is to make a thorough list. The profit here is ours. In examining the ways that our behavior has harmed other people, we can learn some important things about our own thoughts and feelings by examining the actions that grow out of them. This is true even if the other person is unaware of the harm we have done them. To take a hypothetical example, if I said nasty things about Aunt Sally’s new hairdo to Aunt Margaret, Aunt Sally needs to go on the list, whether she knows I said those things or not, because I need to take a look at what it is in me that led me to make those nasty comments. I also need to take a look at what kind of harm, spiritually and emotionally, I have done to myself by engaging in that kind of gossip.

Another way of thinking about this is to look at the ways that our defects of character have impacted other people. Often, reflecting quietly on a broken relationship with another person, we can learn something important about ourselves. The goal is to increase our self-awareness, to really see accurately how we make our way in the world and the places where we need course corrections. This step grows directly out of the “right-sized” humility of Step Seven; we are not seeking to make ourselves out to be worse than we are, nor are we seeking to sugar-coat our own behavior. Instead, we are trying to get a clear and accurate assessment of the impact of our behavior on those around us.

This desire for a clear and accurate assessment often leads recovering addicts and alcoholics to go over their list with their sponsor or a spiritual guide. As human beings, we often “veer off the beam” in one direction or the other, either minimizing our own faults or exaggerating them. An objective third party who is familiar with the spiritual principles we are trying to adopt can often help us to stay centered, providing we are honest with them.

The second half of the step is concerned, once again, with willingness. The question is not, “Could I find this person to make amends?,” nor is it “Should I tell this person what I did, given that they don’t know about it?” Rather, the question is, “If all were to come to light tomorrow and I were to meet this person on the street, would I be willing to do everything in my power to set things right?” What is needed is not only a willingness to admit our fault, but also to make amends, to try to right the past wrong. If we can truthfully answer that we have such willingness, then our work is well done. If not, then we pray for such willingness. In very grave cases, where our own willingness to right our part of the wrong is hampered by the fact that the other person wounded us as well, we can pray both for the ability to forgive the other and for the willingness to be willing. A friend of mine in recovery once related his experience with this step by saying, “I wasn’t willing to make amends to this person, but I was willing not to have my conscience eat at me, and that was enough to make a start.”

I once knew two women who were constantly feuding. They lived on constant high alert, looking for opportunities to score points against each other and to defend against the other. Snide comments, petulant disagreement and petty slights were the order of the day. Their feud would have been bad enough if it had only poisoned their relations with one another, but (again, being that we’re integrated, relational beings) it affected almost everyone around them. Their spouses, children, extended families, friends and even their church were sucked into the vortex of their feud. The feud had lasted so long (over forty years, stretching back to middle school) that I doubt either of them really remembered what had started it. Neither, however, was willing to admit any fault, but instead both were deeply committed to pointing out the wrongs of the other. Thus, the feud went on and on, year after year, sucking in more and more people. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were still going on today. The thing about such feuds, though, is that they are like tug-of-war: they only work if both sides are pulling on the rope.

The internal work of Step Eight is all about changing our relations with other people and clearing away the wreckage of the past. Even if we have been badly hurt, we can resolve to clean up our side of the street and keep it clean. How many of the longstanding feuds of history could have been broken if either side had been willing to exhibit such resolve, and been willing to stop pulling on the rope?

[This post is the twelfth 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.]

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One thought on “Prisons of Our Own Making

  1. Pingback: Setting Things Right | Stir

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