Humans Anonymous

Setting Things Right

In the previous post in this series, I noted that “I’m sorry” can be two of the most powerful words in the English language but two of the most difficult to say. Of course, the reverse is true; the words “I’m sorry” can roll off our lips with hardly a thought, and with still less desire to set right the wrong or to behave differently in the future. In my experience, I find this to be particularly true when the word but is added to them; people (including myself) who begin sentences with, “I’m sorry, but…” quite often aren’t sorry at all, and are primarily interested in justifying their own behavior.

This kind of self-justification is the complete opposite of what is called for in Step 9, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Taking in hand the list we made in Step 8, we set out to not only say that we are sorry, but to amend the wrong (that is, to set it right) wherever possible. It should be obvious by now that the focus is on the harm we have done, not on the wrongs of others. There must be no buts attached to our amends. The point of this step is to clean up our side of the street, not just with our words, but also with our actions.

The amends we need to make tend to fall into one of a handful of categories. There are those people whom we ought to approach immediately in an effort to right the wrong and heal the relationship. Often these are the people closest to us or most gravely affected by our bad behavior. In such cases where the wounds are obvious and still bleeding, we ought to lose no time in doing what we can to set things right.

In other cases, making a full disclosure of our wrongs might actually do more harm to the person we are making amends to, or to other people. I’m reminded of the case of a recovering addict who felt the need to make amends to a church that he had stolen from during his addiction. His partner in the heist was the son of one of the members of the church, and neither he nor his partner had ever been suspected. Rather than increase the sufferings of his partner’s mother, when he made his amends, he apologized publicly to the members of the church and made restitution for everything that had been stolen, not just his share. In this way, he set out to avoid injury to either his partner or to his partner’s mother.

In still other cases, the situation may be such that we will never have the opportunity to make direct amends at all. This is often the case when the injured party has died, or when such time and distance separate the amends from the act as to make direct amends impossible. If we are genuinely ready to make direct amends in such a case but are only prevented by such factors, we can often find other ways to make indirect amends. One recovering alcoholic I know volunteers weekly at a nursing home as an ongoing “living amends” for neglecting to visit his father (now deceased) because of a decades-long feud.

These kinds of “living amends” point out the threefold nature of the amends process. First, there is the admission of wrongdoing and genuine expression of regret. Second, there is restitution (whether material or otherwise), an attempt to set right the wrong if possible. Finally, there is a determination to live differently, to amend one’s life and not continue with the same behaviors. Just as in Steps 6 and 7 we dealt with our defects of character, so in Steps 8 and 9 we are attempting to build assets of character which will mark our lives going forward. Obviously, this is a lifelong process.

When Step 9 is discussed in AA or NA meetings, a couple of themes routinely come up. One is the immense sense of relief that comes after making amends. It is only after we have fully faced up to those we have harmed and made an honest effort to set things right that we realize how heavy the burden on our consciences has been. The other theme is the unpredictability of the responses we may get. It is often the case that the people we most dread making amends to are those who receive us most graciously, while those we expect to be most understanding are the ones who respond to our attempts with the most hostility. (I have often found this to be the case personally.) Again, the point here is to make an honest effort and to accept the fact that our behaviors can often hurt people very deeply, and to try, to the best of our ability, to set those wrongs right.

This does not, however, mean that we become doormats. Accepting responsibility for our wrongs does not mean giving others license to abuse us, nor does it mean accepting more responsibility than is rightly ours. Our responsibility is to make an honest attempt to set things right; if we have made such an honest attempt, we need not and should not accept responsibility for how that attempt is received. As one friend of mine likes to put it, “I don’t have to crawl before anyone, but now I don’t have to hide from anyone, either.”

[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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