Forgiveness is the gold standard. It is the spiritual principle underlying Step Eight and it is incredibly powerful and life-changing. I won't develop on it right here, but I want to put it in your minds that it is going to be a persistent thread that shows up or suggests itself all through this discussion. Step Eight divides neatly into two parts: the list, and becoming willing. Forgiveness will weigh heavily in the second part.
If you thought pride and fear were obstacles to completing Steps Four and Five, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Faced with the prospect of sitting down across the desk from a former employer who trusted me and telling him I stole from him, Fear says "It's more than I can do. My legs won't carry me from the parking lot to his office." And Pride says, "He never paid me enough, and what about the Christmas break when he made me stay in the office? And he always had his eyes on my wife. I wonder if they ever got together? Grrrr. To hell with him anyway. HE needs to make amends to ME." Hmmm. Thought we had humbly asked God to remove those resentments. Why this flash of adrenaline when I think of admitting my wrongdoings to this man?
Usually Step Four is done on our own, and then we do Step Five with a sponsor or somebody else. This works out fine, but where Step Eight's list is concerned a sponsor may need to be consulted all the way through. The paragraph above is an example of the kind of thinking that my mind can generate in a hot second to tip the balance sheet in my own favor. It is one of my quickest, most reliable reflexes. A survival tool that has turned on me.
********************* MAKING THE LIST *******************************
The Step Eight list is something like an inventory of what went wrong between us and the rest of the human race. We covered a lot of it in Step Four, and if we don't still have the inventory on paper, we have the unfinished business still in our minds. And as with Step Four, one of the purposes of it is to help us change our ways. So in constructing the list, we keep in mind that we are examining all that is wrong with the ways we deal with others and that we want spend the rest of our lives on a new footing.
The AA Big Book deals with Steps Eight and Nine seamlessly and seems to take it for granted that we know the harms we have done to others. By the time the AA 12 & 12 was written, it seemed wise to say a lot about just what was meant by harming others. No wonder. They had seen a generation of the kind of rationalization and self-justification shown in the example of the former employer above. The OA 12 & 12 notes wryly that, funny, we never did seem to have any trouble identifying harm when it was done to US.
Some of the kinds of harm the AA 12 & 12 talks about are of the "pain in the ass" variety being ill-tempered, controlling everybody in the family/office, being a sad sack with a bundle of troubles you made the topic of every conversation. Sexual selfishness of all sorts, lying and cheating and stealing are also there just in case we hadn't noticed those.
When I showed my first Eighth Step list to my sponsor, he asked things like, "Why is this person on here? What did you DO to him?" It would turn out that I had made a fool of myself in that person's eyes and felt ashamed every time I saw him. I could not distinguish between actual harm done to somebody, and my losing face. As noted, I sure didn't have any trouble in Step Four going on and on about harm others had done ME. Then my sponsor asked, "Where is Lem's name?" Lem was my stepson during the last several years of my drinking. He had, still has, a way of seeing the good in a person even when that good is very hard to see, and he looked up to me in spite of a lot of shabby and sometimes violent treatment on my part. It struck me that I had treated him badly and had not even thought to put his name on the list. Somehow if a person had forgiven ME, the offense no longer counted. And it is the way of kids to forgive us maybe too easily.
My list contained a number of financial amends, some which would involve a personal meeting and some which were simply to institutions and required a letter or phone call. I'll say more about this in Step Nine, but it was revealing to me that I found it a lot easier to face the creditors and tell them "Here I am and I will pay you as I can," than actually to turn loose of even a few dollars a month on a regular basis. It was like pulling my own teeth.
I want to break in at this point to say that revisiting this history, even in the general way I've done it so far, is flooding me with gratitude for the changes in my character over the past thirty years. I am feeling the power of Steps Eight and Nine as experiences that changed my life fundamentally.
When going over my list with my sponsor, we talked over each name on the list and at that point he told me what the right action would be. "Go to this person and tell her exactly what you just told me." "Put this one off for a while." "You have no right to tell this person about yourself and his wife just to ease your own conscience." (I'm paraphrasing and filling in here it's been nearly thirty years since that day we sat down on a bench next to the Ala Wai Canal.) He knew that one of the immediate threats to my sobriety [abstinence] was fear of facing people in the here and now, people who lived and moved in the same community I lived in. Some of these people needed to be faced right away. In fact, two of them were former employers I had stolen from. In FACT, at the time of this meeting with my sponsor, there was sitting in my living room a grocery bag of tools I had stolen, a few days sober, from this gorgeous woman who had fired me from my maintenance job. "Take care of these NOW." And then there were the amends to my first wife and kids back in Texas, where I was still wanted by the sheriff and hated by my ex-wife who would probably turn me in if I showed up at her door. My thinking in all these cases varied from "I don't really have to go talk to the employers, just not steal any more in the future, that's an amend isn't it?" to "I'll go back to Texas and say Here I am, shoot me!" If balance was to be found, it had to come from a trusted friend and not from my own thinking. And this can be a life-and-death errand, especially if there are husbands and fathers and sheriffs in the mix.
My early teachers and sponsors put my sobriety as the top priority but led me to see the amend as a way of setting something right, healing another person's resentment or at least giving them an opportunity to heal if they wanted to, restoring their faith in human nature by my saying, "Yes, I knew this was wrong and I did it and harmed you, and I'm asking you to forgive me for it." In my life I had said I was sorry a million times, usually when I was caught or confronted and needed an escape hatch. But the times I had said "I was wrong," you could count on the fingers of one hand. My mind had a lightning-fast algorithm that fixed it so that I was NOT wrong.
The AA 12 & 12 mentions, under Step Eight, instances that harmed us, ourselves, and caused violent twists to our personalities. That is so, and I believe these are Step Four items and should have been dealt with there. That line showing up under Step Eight may be the beginning of a practice I think is wrong putting our own names on the Eighth Step list. Or it may have come out of the self-focus of the self-help movements. If I had done that, my good sponsors would have said something like "Oh, so you're trying to recover from a fatal disease that has its roots in selfishness and self-centeredness, and you're going to do that by putting yourself on the amends list? Right. Ah, and you're at the TOP of the list too? Well well." Doing right by others for a change is the best amend we can make to ourselves. I don't mean to nitpick putting oneself at the top of the amends list reveals a misunderstanding of the spiritual exercise we are doing here.
Courage is at a premium. Having had the grace, I might call it courage, to face these people, and then to see the unexpected warmth and acceptance they usually responded with, and to see the changes in myself afterwards. I was able later down the line to take the role of sponsor and say with confidence, "Yes, you have to go to the insurance agent and tell him you found the jewelry you thought was stolen, that they paid you for." And when we felt it was a life-or-death matter, "You need to take your supervisor to coffee and tell her you used the Demerol you were supposed to be giving the patients." As the Big Book says, these are matters that can get you locked up or fired or your license yanked, so they are to be prayed about and talked over with everyone who might be affected. But in the end, a way is usually found to make the admission of wrongdoing and get back on center spiritually. And I would see these people make their amends, and have the amends accepted, adjustments made by the people who received the amend "Okay, I trust you now because you came and told me, and it won't go any further, and DON'T do it again" -- and see them recover. It goes against all the common wisdom to put oneself at the mercy of others in this way in human affairs, and yet we are the big winners in the end.
The timing of the amend and this is stressed all through the literature and brought up by an oldtimer every time a meeting focuses on amends the timing is God's business. It is beyond the ability of humans to figure out the right timing in some cases, and then things will fall together all at once at the most unexpected time. But our part is to become ready.
There are some obstacles to becoming ready, but for the most important amends the biggest obstacle is long-held resentment. A Ninth Step gone wrong is very hard to fix a diplomatic disaster for everybody concerned. And the main thing to be avoided is to go into a Ninth Step still holding anger toward the person. It will come out in SOME way, maybe as an explosion or catfight, or maybe it will just be sensed and everybody will leave feeling like they'd drunk Drano. But everybody involved will know it didn't WORK.
In my first marriage of 13 years, the wrongs and counter-wrongs were so complicated God himself could not have figured it out. Cheating, counter-cheating, my drinking and selfishness, her complicity with law enforcement people who were trying to kill me for civil rights work, lots more than that. It took me seven years after going over my list on the Ala Wai Canal that day, to call my ex-wife at work (a new sheriff was in office, civil rights was an old issue, and I was not in danger in Texas any more) and ask her to meet me at McDonald's across the street for coffee. My attitude was, I will admit how wrong I was and ask her to forgive me and my goal will be to give her a little window to let go of the resentment I knew was killing her. And her reception of it would be her own business. I pretty much poured my heart out, and her reception was a little cold and there were a couple of barbs in there (they are not required to accept the amend that's their side of the street). She damn sure did not admit any wrongdoing of her own, and there'd been plenty. I realized afterwards, if I'd tried to make that amend a year or two earlier and it hadn't gone exactly the way I wanted it to, that I would have brought up her weight and housekeeping and our cold marriage and thrown in the kitchen sink because I hadn't forgiven her. I see so clearly how wrong and dangerous it would have been to ask forgiveness from somebody I was still angry with.
And the next day I was visiting my son David who had a brand new grandson, and my ex-wife drove up as I was holding the baby out in the front yard. Instead of wanting to hide under something, I handed the baby to her and said "Here's your Grandma." And she took the baby in her arms and we smiled. The Ninth Step had been imperfect you might say, but the healing was under way and there was one more person I did not dread to face. There are no people I am afraid to face today.
And having said all that, the Big Book and the early AA's did not envision putting off amends for long while one waited for forgiveness to come into their heart. Dr. Bob had his last beer one morning, as I remember reading it, did surgery on some poor patient's bottom, and got in his car and made the rounds of people he dreaded to face. He must have heartily disliked at least some of them, but he felt he must end his isolation and dread of meeting people in his own community.
Now about forgiveness. From time to time there are cases that are beyond my understanding like the missionary who returned to work with the same group of Indians in the Amazon basin who had killed her husband with arrows. A Steve McQueen movie whose title I forget, that contains the same dynamic. His whole life is devoted to revenge for his mother's death, until he meets a priest who has shown that kind of forgiveness.
One of my sons, this has been maybe fifteen years now, had a daughter Alissa age twelve who was living with her mom and stepfather. The daughter confided in her friend Marla, my son's stepdaughter, that she was having sex. Marla told on her. My son's wife confronted Alissa, and she panicked at being caught and probably wanted to protect the guy involved, and told her mom, "My dad raped me." All hell broke loose. My son was thrown in jail, stayed awake for four days so the other prisoners would not kill him, my mom had to come up with sixteen thousand scarce dollars for a famous defense attorney, the case dragged on for many months. Until it became known that it was Alissa's stepfather she'd been having sex with, and he left suddenly for parts unknown and Alissa and her mom called the D. A. and asked him to drop charges, and it was over.
I'm telling you this at length because of my attitude, and my son's attitude. As for me, I thought, Alissa is tried in my mind as an adult and is guilty of nearly getting her dad killed or imprisoned for something she knew he didn't do, and I will never speak to her again. In her whole life. She ought to be exiled onto a tropical island with no people on it and live on mangos for seventy years. And then within a year I was visiting Texas and went to my son's house, and he and Alissa were laughing and joking, no trace of bitterness, no smell of bad history. I marvel at his strong heart, to let something like that be over and done with and to love his child as he always had. Alissa has turned out well, has children of her own now and is a good wife and mom.
And stories like that, a person with the integrity to be rid of resentments no matter how "justified" they may be, make me want to search my heart for hard spots, people I haven't forgiven / won't forgive.
So, our program and many religions tell us we need to cultivate forgiveness, and generally nobody tells us how. The biggest and first step is in the Step Four inventory, Fifth Step, and the asking resentments to be removed. And as for the ones that persist, the longtime experience of our program is that prayer, repeated prayer, will finally root them out. There is no mistaking it when it comes like a flood, and the weight of it is gone for some of us that weight has a physical analog.
So, "became willing to make amends to them all" asks a lot more of us that it would appear at first glance. Forgive them ALL? What about the ones who have done five times as much to us? And how about the things that are too awful to be forgiven? Well, do we want to walk the earth as free people or not?
STEP EIGHT ~ QUESTIONS
1. Are you willing to go to any lengths to recover from compulsive overeating?
2. Do you have a pretty good idea what harms you have done others?
3. Have you made a list of the people you have harmed? Does it make you feel scared or defensive, put you in conflict?
4. Have you gone over the list with your sponsor? Did you see some of the cases in an entirely different way after that?
5. Do you see "harm" in a different way after working through the list with your sponsor?
6. Are there some amends you feel you cannot make because you are so resentful about the other person's wrongs to you or others, or just because they're such an asshole?
7. What are you going to do about that? Are you willing to pray for the person persistently till the resentment is gone?
8. Are there amends you resist because you will be ashamed to make the admission to a person you respect?
9. Are there amends you resist because there are potential real-world consequences like jail/unemployment/divorce? Maybe you don't want to answer this one in a public forum.
10. After answering this list of questions, are you STILL willing to go to any length?