“The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” –Socrates, 399 B.C.
Various philosophical and spiritual traditions down through history have affirmed the value of regular self-examination. While it is tempting to view such self-examination as self-flagellation (and it can easily be turned into that), the true purpose and benefit of such reflection is not to generate self-loathing. In fact, quite the opposite is true. When engaged in regularly, such reflection can lead to greater self-awareness and, paradoxically, both to greater ability to love one’s self and to be less self-centered. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as the Jesuits) included the “examination of conscience” in his Spiritual Exercises. Moreover, as Father James Martin, SJ, notes in his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Ignatius felt that this practice of examen [i] was so important that “he used to say that it was so important that even if Jesuits neglected all other forms of prayer in their day, they should never neglect this one.” (pg. 87)
In recovery spirituality, Step Ten underlines the importance of such ongoing self-examination: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” This sort of inventory, while similar to that undertaken in Step 4, is much more focused on the day at hand. Taking such inventory on a daily basis helps to identify and address issues before they progress to the point of needing to be on a major moral inventory. As Ben Franklin wisely noted, “a stitch in time saves nine.”
So how does such daily inventory work, and how do we use it to our benefit rather than as self-flagellation? The simplest method is to simply sit quietly and review the events of the day, particularly our interactions with other people. Where was I selfish, impatient, short-tempered or judgmental? If I suffered from any of these things, what were the circumstances? As Bill W. notes in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” What was it in me that led to these moments of spiritual dis-ease? Were any of the defects of character identified in the earlier steps particularly troublesome, or did they manifest themselves in new or perhaps more subtle ways? Did I wrong anyone today, and if so, how can I make it right as soon as possible? Do I owe any apologies or amends?
This is not all there is, however. As Bill goes on to say in 12 & 12,
“This is a good place to remember that inventory-taking is not always done in red ink. It’s a poor day indeed when we haven’t done something right. As a matter of fact, the waking hours are usually well-filled with things that are constructive. Good intentions, good thoughts, and good acts are there for us to see. Even when we have tried hard and failed, we may chalk that up as one of the greatest credits of all.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pg. 93)
Thus, it is important in the course of our daily inventory to take note of the things that went well. Where was I happy today? What were the circumstances? What things brought me as sense of joy, of fulfillment, of usefulness? Where was I of help to others today? What things brought me a sense of peace, of belonging, of love? Where was I able to treat those around me with love and tolerance, especially those who are sometimes difficult to love and tolerate? What gifts did I receive from God today, and where was I able to share God’s gifts with others? Being aware of these things, and giving thanks for them, is just as important of being aware of and repenting for the places where we have fallen short of our ideals.
Many people find that it is helpful to take this daily inventory at the end of the day, and to do so in writing. In my own life, I have often found that this is the cure for insomnia. When my mind is endlessly chewing over something that happened during the day, moving the rumination from subconscious gnawing on it to purposeful, conscious reflection allows me to give the situation the attention and energy it deserves, but no more. Having duly examined it (and made a concrete plan to deal with any needed amends), I talk to God about it, and then most often quickly go to untroubled sleep.
Doing the inventory in writing makes it possible to see both patterns and progress. If my Tuesday inventories are particularly negative, there might be something in my routine on Tuesdays that needs to be adjusted. If a particular person appears frequently on the “debit” side, that is likely a relationship I need to devote some attention to mending, and a person I need to pray for. If, on the other hand, a particular person appears frequently on the “credit” side, attached to joyful moments, I would do well to intentionally thank that person for being a blessing in my life. After a period of time of taking such written inventory, it can be instructive to look back over the pages and see where we have made progress. Things that were particularly vexing to us may have disappeared. Conversely, we may find that things which once brought us joy have somehow slipped out of focus, and can then be brought back in an intentional way.
The daily habit of inventory also serves to build a foundation for resilience in moments of crisis or distress. When a particular incident gets us “all shook up”, or “off the beam” as recovering people often put it, we can take a few moments, do a “spot check inventory” and identify what needs to change in ourselves to get back on an even keel. Moreover, I have found that regular daily inventory makes those “off the beam” moments more and more infrequent, and also gets me in the habit of cleaning up my messes when I offend someone else rather than simply blowing it off.
That, of course, is the ultimate benefit of such inventory. Regular self-examination makes us better able to see and deal effectively with those things which hamper our fullest relationship with God and with others. It opens up channels of grace in our lives, and opens us up to be channels of grace in the lives of others.
[This post is the thirteenth 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] Readers interested in a fuller treatment of the examen in particular and Jesuit spirituality in general are encouraged to check out Father Martin’s excellent The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010). It is quite simply one of the best (and most useful) books on spirituality I have ever encountered.