Reflections on Step 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous
“Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Go apologize for everything you’ve ever done wrong. Oh, and make restitution while you’re at it. Come again? As soon as we hear those words, our collective blood pressure goes through the roof. It makes us want to run away- it makes us want to drink. We drank in the past to rid ourselves of this discomfort. We thought it an ingenious solution. So whats the problem? The problem is, it didn’t work! As the extended version of the serenity prayer tells us, ‘hardship is the pathway to peace’.
The world moves at a bewildering pace- 1000 miles per hour near the equator. We wake up, often with our phone in the bed, claiming that it’s only there because we use it as an alarm. But what’s the next thing most of us do? Before we draw one deep, conscious breath, we check our inbox, scan the news, and make sure we haven’t missed anything on social media. 1860 you could sit down and compose a letter to someone across the country and the Pony Express would deliver it in 10 days for the equivalent of about $27 today. Your inbox would be relatively empty at that pace and cost. Humans now send 23 billion text messages around the globe every day for next to nothing. It’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed and no wonder that change of any kind is so uncomfortable. Our minds are boggled! It’s all we can do to just keep track of who we are. We can’t slow it down, we can only refuse to keep up. All of these distractions make it nearly impossible to live a life of calm reflection. The sad thing is that’s why we do it. We think we can drown out the discomfort of past error by overwhelming it with the metallic din of busyness. But, not looking at it doesn’t make it go away; It just drives it deeper into our subconscious where it can attack from a stealth position at any time. We expend enormous amounts of energy to defend ourselves from this unseen attacker. The irony is that, in our attempt to avoid discomfort, we bury ourselves in exponentially greater heaps of discomfort.
The good news is that we alcoholics and addicts have a nearly supernatural ability to tolerate discomfort! How else could we have avoided getting help for so long? All this to say, the only reason anyone would ever take on step 8 is that the relief the process affords is greater than the pain required to achieve it.
Why is this step necessary? Why can’t i just leave the past where it belongs, in the past?
Think of a person you may have harmed. Choose one that seems impossible to approach. When you think of that person, how does it make you feel?
If it’s really gone and past, how did you access the memory? Why was that memory uncomfortable?—– Because its not really gone. Not only is it not gone, it has the power to injure you even today.
The biblical remedy is given in Matthew 5:24-27. “Therefore, if you’re offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the alter. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
What is this saying? If you want to stand comfortably before your creator, or in your own skin, go make things right with your brothers and sisters. This is how we close the gap between what we’ve actually been- the life we’ve demonstrated, and the life we’ve attempted to sell as authentic. Many of us don’t even know it’s an act.
We want to go and make this right if for no other reason than self-interest.
No supernatural being shames us when we fall short, but we do. This restitution enables us to approach the mirror with confidence.
So, look at your list. Could you imagine going to a party where this was the entire guest list? Awkward, no? But here’s the deal. Everyone on this list is energetically tied to you. If, when you think of them, it causes you angst, the thought drains your energy, then you are not free. So, is that really in the past if it causes you harm in the present? No, when you drag the past into the present you can be fairly certain you’re making it part of your future.
When we hold on to our resentments we isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters – our true family. In this step we don’t concern ourselves with the errors of those from whom we ask forgiveness; we’re tidying up our side of the street. It may seem like a nice gesture to mow the neighbors lawn but if you weren’t asked to do it, it’s trespassing plain and simple.
When we apologize for harm we’ve done, it changes us. How much can we change? It depends on how willing we are to be uncomfortable. This newfound freedom is highly unfamiliar and therefore perceived as the enemy because it threatens to undo the ‘you’ you’ve come to know. The ‘you’ you’ve come to know is just the sum total of a lifetime of habits with which you are very familiar and intimately identified. So, when you are self-absorbed, it isn’t even your authentic self with which you are obsessed. The reason it feels so unsteady and unsafe is that you’re defending an image of yourself that you have made and often don’t even like.
Bottom line, It takes an enourmous amount of energy to suppress these wrongs and the feelings they produce. If we are willing to be uncomfortable temporarily, we can be free.