The eighth of the twelve steps is, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” The ninth is, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
I never had a formal sponsor during my year of otherwise-diligent twelve-stepping, primarily because I couldn’t subscribe to the basic definition of sobriety in my program. (Those in the program might say I was “unwilling to surrender.”) But I did have a mentor, a tremendous, wise, inspiring man I’ll call “Joe.”
Joe’s basic philosophy is,”You can’t recover slowly enough.” He gave me a book once (The Dhammapada) inscribed, “Wishing you a slow recovery.” Under his tutelage, I learned to resist my (apparently common) impulse to do the twelve steps in twelve days. His view is that the steps are best done over a period of years, not days, weeks, or even months. Even after I left the program (some two years ago now), I continue to find the twelve steps a fairly helpful set of guides (some being more helpful than others).
These two steps, in particular, are, in many ways, the most important to me. The list of those to whom I owe amends is long, and there’s no one I imagine I will be able fully to “make things right” with. That’s the nature of amends: you can’t undo the past; you can only seek to improve on it, and to acknowledge it fully. A platitude I like (and may have written here before) is, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past will have been different.”
My approach to amend-making has been to take it very seriously, and not to orient it around a quest for forgiveness, but rather, around positive, affirmative deeds, actions, behaviors – around establishing dispositively that I am different, that while I may have harmed others once, I am now committed not just to not harming them, but to helping them. I told my wife at one particularly dark moment, where forgiveness felt completely impossible and inaccessible to her, “I can’t rush your forgiveness. I need only to know that you would be happy were you able to forgive me,” and I set myself to being the husband I never had been.
I don’t know how successful I’ve been, I am, I will continue to be. There are several people, particularly in the land of work, with whom I’ve done, thus far, a piss-poor job, and to whom I aspire to make amends more effectively. With my family, I like to think that, while I have a lifetime of real work ahead of me, I’ve been somewhat more… effective? successful? thoughtful?
In many ways, “making amends” is the organizing principle of my life: how can I make my existence have been a valuable one, a positive one, not in my eyes, not in some objective sense, but as experienced by those I encounter in life. To a certain extent, this is an impossibility: there is at least one person who has little interest in forgiving me, in seeing an ounce of good in me, so wronged does he feel. And with him, my goal is necessarily different: with him, I simply aspire to create a reality in which I feel I have done my best to do right by him. I can’t allow his sense of victimhood to rule me.
There are others to whom I find the making of amends enormously difficult: somehow, although I know what it would take, for a variety of reasons, I find it challenging – impossible? – to do what it would take.
There are two people in 12-step programs, or who have passed through them, who’ve attempted to make amends with me. I’m not sure what to conclude from my sense that each has done so almost incidentally, as if making amends were a simple matter of saying “Sorry!” Or even, “Whoops!”
I don’t know if this is information about them, about me, or about both of us. But I do know that, in the language of the twelve steps, their glancing, half-assed-seeming, amends have been a “blessing” to me, serving to highlight the importance of getting amends right, the cost of getting amends wrong.
It’s not a bad thing, it turns out, to live one’s life informed by the proposition that one has a lot to make right.
But one point coming from the opposite direction: many of us – particularly, but not exclusively, those whose shame is big enough to swallow a whale – easily imagine that we rightly ought to make amends to everyone we have harmed (or who even feels harmed by us). I think this is a dangerous, and self-destructive (and possibly ultimately narcissistic, grandiose) fantasy. It’s not possible to live a life without harming others. It’s hardly possible to live a day without harming others. Particularly, especially, uniquely, those whom we love. When we love someone, we want to deliver to them a perfectly harmonious, perfectly congruent experience of us: we want to be precisely whom they want us to be; we want them to be precisely whom we want them to be.
Neither, in the end, is possible. Ever.
Shit, I can hardly be who I want to be. How can I possibly be the person you want me to be?
Just to top it all off, not all harms merit apologies (let alone, amends). Sometimes, we harm those we love simply by being ourselves. All the gay children who’ve disappointed parents who experienced homosexuality as a tragedy, all the apostate (or even believing) children who’ve married out of their faith (or religion, or class), all the Jewish sons who’ve not gone to college (or who simply haven’t chosen to become doctors or lawyers), all the husbands who’ve left the toilet seats up, all the wives who’ve left the toilet seat down…. Each of these is an instance of love resulting in “harm,” but none, honestly, requires (or even appropriately is followed by) an apology.*
This is a challenge in life and in love, for me: when I’m harmed by something anyone I love does, who owes whom an apology?
Another great bit of twelve-step wisdom? If you’re angry, if you’re feeling that someone owes you an apology, you can never go wrong by finding something to apologize to that person for. But don’t, for a minute, imagine that you can prevent someone from feeling wounded.