Working the Steps – Step 8, Part 2

My newest book, Practicing Resurrection:  Radical Hope in Difficult Times has just been released by Smyth and Helwys Publishers.

When I began writing this series on the Twelve Steps, I had not yet even outlined the book’s chapters, but now that the book has been written and released, it is time to differentiate between this series and the new book.   I do, however, see that working the Twelve Steps is a powerful way to “practice resurrection.”  I hope you will read both.

Thank you so much for reading this series on the Twelve Steps, formerly named “Practicing Resurrection”. From now on, this series will appear as “Working the Steps”. Step Eight, Part 2 can be found below.

Working the Steps:  Step Eight, Part 2

Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them.

If I have wounded any soul today,

If I have caused one foot to go astray,

If I have walked in my own willful way,

Dear Lord, forgive.

Leaving the birthplace of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, on a late summer road trip across the South, I unwrapped my new CD of Elvis’ gospel music and popped it into the CD player in the car.

It had been years since I had heard this song, but I can remember my mother’s singing this old hymn.  For a few miles and with the power of memory, I was back in my childhood home, feeling nostalgic.

However, with a lot of life between then and now and a longtime practice of working these Steps, the “If I have” beginning to each line of that song caught my attention.

“The question isn’t if I have wounded someone else or gone my own willful way,” I told my husband.  “I have,” I stated firmly, “and it’s my job to know precisely how I have done that!”

No one sings a gospel song quite like Elvis, and I would love to linger awhile in the “If I have’s”, but these many years of working the Steps won’t let me play that coy game with myself.

“If I have” may be a substitute for “help me to see what I’ve done”, but it must be the first step I take toward becoming aware of the ways I have harmed myself and others.  If I stop with “If I have done anything wrong”, I’m playing games with myself, asking for cheap grace.

Before I can get to forgiveness, I have to look at my own actions, motivations, words and habits that have caused pain or suffering to myself or others.

I can tell myself “It wasn’t that bad” or I can hope that the persons I’ve hurt didn’t notice what I had done.

I can justify what I did by saying, “He started it” or “I didn’t know what I was doing.  I can make any number of excuses, but the only way out of the deep hole of denial is to stop digging and begin telling myself the cold, hard, unvarnished truth.

I can minimize what I have done or blow it up to be bigger than it was, which is a strange way of avoiding telling myself the truth.  Being the best of the worst sinners and doing the most horrible of all bad things that anyone could ever possibly do doesn’t really tell the truth about what I’ve done.  Awful-izing and embellishing the story is yet another way to distract myself and lead myself astray into the drama of it all.

Making the tale of my shortcomings and harmful deeds more than they are may be entertaining.  They might even make funny stories, but in the end the old “Tell the truth and nothing but the truth” is the best policy.

Working this Step is hard.  It’s humiliating and painful, but here’s the Good News:  It is also liberating.  It is the way to forgiveness and freedom.  It is the way to activate the amazing grace and mercy that is available, if we have the courage to open our minds and hearts to it.

* * * *  *

When I did this Step the first time, I divided my life into seasons, going back as far as I could remember, and simply asked God to show me what I had done to hurt someone else in each phase of my life.  I wish I could say that it was hard to remember, but it wasn’t, and what I was to realize was that all of those memories I had stuffed were wrapped in regret, embarrassment, shame and guilt.

So it as with a sense of relief and even hopefulness that with my journal in hand, I wrote down all I could think of as each incident came to mind, sifting through my memory.  Carefully, I wrote down the precise nature of my wrong.  I recorded how I hurt the other person, and sometimes I cried.

I had to take breaks, too, so that I wouldn’t overwhelm myself with guilt.  I remembered, as well, the counsel of my sponsor who told me to try to find just the right amount of zeal in uncovering my wrongs.  I didn’t understand at first by what she meant about finding the balance between being too hard on myself and not hard enough, but over time, I came to understand that finding that balance was a gift that came with a willingness to tell myself the hard facts and the unvarnished truth about my actions, attitudes and words.

When I finished with that first list, my sponsor had me go back to my journal and write down everything I had done to hurt myself, which included the times I allowed someone else to injure me.  Again, I wrote about the exact nature of that self-injury and how it felt when it happened.   Later, it occurred to me to write about how I felt about the incident as I was doing this Step, comparing the felt and perceived impact from the past and my experience of the incident in the present.

Over time, I have learned to keep my accounts current, to pay attention to the times when I offend someone, unconsciously or consciously.   I work to know what I’ve done when I have done it, and I work to stay conscious and aware of my motivations that cause me to say that cutting remark, withhold affection or love, criticize, offend or harm another person.

In these years of working this Step, I have also learned how to handle other peoples’ harmful acts toward me in a way that helps me acknowledge the hurt or anger, but not react to it in a way that makes the problem worse.  Ignoring the impact of others’ actions and words doesn’t make the hurt go away, but untreated wounds do fester over time.  I’ve learned that others’ injuries become self-injuries if I don’t deal with them, and I’ve also learned that if I allow resentment and anger to fester, those energies will leak out or explode out in words or actions that will hurt both myself and others.

** * * *

On surely one of the hottest and most humid days in Houston’s history, I stood in a line on the campus of Rice University for what seemed like an entire morning to hear the Dalai Lama speak.  My husband and I were herded with the crowd from building to building for some unknown reason.  Perhaps the crowd was bigger than expected or the security concerns were such that we were moved around so much, but the wait was so long that we were tempted to leave.

Packed into the basketball gym, we waited even longer for the appearance of the man who is an ambassador for kindness and happiness. I don’t remember what his topic was that day, but I do remember that the crowd listened to him in rapt silence.  At the end of his speech, he took some questions, and his answer to the last question is the one take-away of the day for me.

The Dalai Lama’s answer was powerful, but equally impressive was the change in his voice from the relaxed, happy tone to a deep bass and a stern tone.  He got up from his chair and walked to the edge of the low stage, getting as close as he could to the young man who had asked a question I have long forgotten.

“You don’t ever allow another person to abuse you or inflict violence on you by words or actions,” he said, which made perfect sense to me.  It was what he next that brought the entire gym to utter silence.

“By allowing another person to injure you, you are participating in his violence he is inflicting on himself.”

I have never forgotten what he said next.

“When a person abuses another person, he hates that person for letting him do it, and he hates himself for doing it, and the person who is abused hates the abuser and hates himself for letting himself be abused.   And that is how the cycle of violence is perpetuated.”

* * * **

The cycle of abuse begins with hurtful words – insults, put-downs, labeling, name-calling

The parties blame each other or someone else —

The anger escalates into actions that are harmful and destructive —

Left unaddressed, the anger escalates into physical violence –

Once physical violence begins, it can be deadly.

* * * **

What about you?

What do you dread most about writing down the actual names of the people you have harmed, including yourself?

Can you see this list as the way to forgiveness and freedom?

What do you have to lose?

What do you have to gain?

There is grace ahead – all the grace you need.

Believe it.


Working the Steps – Step 8

Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

“If I have done anything to offend you…..”

“Tell me what it is that I did!”

“You know I did that only because you did what you did….”

Stop right here.

Those are not good openings for doing this Step.  In fact, if there were rules for doing this Step, these approaches break all of them, but they are common and frequent ploys for wiggling out of taking responsibility for the harm we have done to others.

The first one puts the burden on the offended party for being offended.

The second one makes the injured party do the work, setting up a line of defense in the offender.

The third approach places the blame on the person who has been harmed.

This is the point in the program when you really do start to grow up.   This is where the point is not about other people have done to make you do the things you have done or may even still be doing.

This is the point in the program when you do what spiritually mature people do and start taking responsibility for how you have hurt other people and yes, even yourself.

* * * * *

Taking Step Eight starts with making a list of all the people you have harmed, and on the front end, it’s only about making the list.  You can’t get ahead of yourself and go even to the second half of this Step just yet or you might get too scared and run back inside yourself and close the door.

On the other hand, you may want to ponder this list for a period of time because it is scary to think about having to own up to some stuff you’d rather forget in front of someone who already knows what you have done and may also be hiding in an inner cave, closed off in fear, disappointment, pain and suffering.

You might want to make a pact with yourself or with your sponsor, however, about timing.   If you linger too long, making that list, you might get stuck.  Moving forward it the underlying goal of this Step.  Moving from guilt and shame and through the paralysis of fear to the freedom of forgiveness, restitution and restoration is a worthy goal and worth the trouble.

* * * * *

When I come to this Step, I have to acknowledge that it is really truly hard and unpleasant and painful and just plain terrifying to have to face the truth about how my words and behavior have injured someone I love or maybe some innocent person who came across my path in a moment when I was out of control, either with my self-will running riot, my self-destroying behavior or an emotion that is out of control.

Face it, I tell myself:  It is so hard to fall from grace in your own eyes.

It is so hard to face the things I have done that injured other people — either emotionally, physically, financially or spiritually.

Just remember:  At this point, all you have to do is make the list.

Take out a piece of paper and a pen or go to your computer and start a list there.  This Step is potentially life-changing for the good, and the sooner you start, the sooner you will be able to experience mercy and grace.  This Step is potentially healing, liberating, transforming and empowering.  That’s not a bad outcome, is it?

Yes, there is a time and a place for dealing with what others have done to us, but at this point, the focus is on taking full responsibility for what you have done to harm others, either by word, action or indifference, neglect, abandonment or the violence of silence.

* * * * *

The first time I took this Step, I really wanted to shift the responsibility for what I had done over to someone else.  I can remember the look in my sponsor’s eyes when I started explaining to her why it was I was the way I was.  I remember how she listened to my justification for a moment, but I will never, ever forget the moment when she said these words of grace:

Yeah — That’s how you got this way.  Now……what are you going to do about it? 

Years later, sitting in my analyst’s sacred room, I knew I had another layer of stuff that I needed to confess.   You would think that I would have learned my lesson with my sponsor, but I guess I thought I might try a similar approach.

“I am not responsible for what I did when I didn’t know any better, am I?   I am not responsible for what I did before I was aware, am I?”

Even now, I cringe with embarrassment, but then I smile to myself, remembering his response, other words of grace.

Children blame.    Adults take responsibility.

That was then.  This is now.

Woe to the person who believes that grace always comes in a flavor you like.  Sometimes, grace begins with a terrifying moment of hearing someone say that whatever you have done, you gotta own it, and you’ll feel ‘way better when you do.

No more excuses.   No more rationalizations.

Don’t explain.  Don’t justify.

Own it.

Make the list. 

* * * * *

It is true that there are some wounds inflicted on us that we will carry for the rest of our lives, but this Step helps us carry them in a different way because there is something infinitely liberating about owning our own stuff.   Ironically, it feels good to admit that the way we have carried what others have done to us has also hurt other people.  The ways we have suffered have also done self-injury.  We all know that hurt people hurt other people, and we all know that our we have used our wounds as weapons.

The Good News  and amazing grace is that our deepest wounds can become healing balm for others.

Somehow, admitting the ways we have harmed other people by or because of  our character defects opens the door of mercy.  Even better, admitting our wrongs with ruthless honesty helps us join the human race.

A memory verse from Isaiah 53:6 reminds us of our common tendencies as humans:

All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned our own way.

 Either out of innocence or willful intent, ignorance or stupid carelessness, arrogance, indifference or anger, all of us sheep tend to think we can go down our own selfish path.

 Those words pretty well state a part of the human predicament, and there is more truth from 1 John 1:8.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

 I like the way Eugene Peterson renders 1 John 1:8 in The Message: 

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves.

A claim like that is errant nonsense.

 (As much as I resisted the pressures of memorizing scriptures when I was a preacher’s kid, those memory verses come back to me when I need them.)

Here’s the Good News:   It is in a simple process of making the list of those I have harmed and following a path that has been life-changing for countless thousands that I place myself in a position to experience amazing grace — and here is where 1 John 1:9  affirms this process:

On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—

he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself.

 He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. 

(To be clear, the “he” in these verses is God, and yes, we all have done things that have separated us from his love.)(And oh my goodness, could we ever have long and lengthy talks about this– Remember that God image discussion, ‘way back in Step 3?)

* * * * *

When I am guiding people through this Step, I see it as part of my job to stand as a witness to God’s loving compassion in this sacred process.   One of the things that means is that I attempt to empower the other person to claim the wrongs he/she has actually done out of his/her character defect.   I find it is vitally important to walk the fine line between being too hard on yourself and letting yourself off the hook too quickly or easily.

This isn’t so much about hitting your brother when you were a small child and it isn’t about saying bad words to annoy or offend your mother, and so some deep reflection and prayer for guidance is appropriate.    What it is about is owning your harmful words and actions when you were acting from your character defect.

When doing this Step, I always ask for God to give me the courage to see what I have hidden from myself, either by convenient forgetting, denial that it really was that hurtful, fear of what the other might do if I make myself vulnerable enough to make amends or by excusing, rationalizing, justifying and explaining my wrongs away.

* * * * *

It is important to keep a firm focus on my behaviors, my deeds, my attitudes, my wrongs and not let other peoples’ stuff bleed over into mine.

Sometimes it is helpful just to let the memories come to you as they will, and sometimes it is helpful to divide your life into seasons and comb through those years sequentially.  You get to choose how, but do it.

You may want to reflect on the time you first began acting out of your primary character defect.  Or, you may want to go to the first offense against another you can remember.  Suit yourself, but come clean, if only with yourself, for now.   Often, telling yourself the truth is the hardest part.

Let yourself feel the regret, the guilt and the shame, but count on your good and wise sponsor not to let you drown in your remorse.  An experienced sponsor has a keen sense of when you are into just beating yourself up, being super-scrupulous and trying to be perfect, which can be part of a character defect, and when you need to be honest to the bone.  Punishing oneself and taking responsibility for oneself are two notably different acts with  radically different outcomes.

* * * * *

So….back to making that list.    Just take the first steps.

Equipped with your computer or pen and paper, begin.

Ask God to help you and then, write.

Take breaks if you need to, but promise yourself you will stick with the process until you are finished.

When you have finished, offer it to God.

Give thanks that you have the moral courage to admit your wrongs, and give thanks to God for bringing them to your attention.

Take a walk.  Mark the moment.   Give yourself credit.

Be willing to understand that in the strangest way, it is God’s grace that allows us to come to our senses, feel the pain and shame and guilt and regret we need to feel, own our stuff and be open to the forgiveness and peace that is ahead.

Remember this:  Only the dead feel no pain, and only those who have a moral center and a healthy conscience  are willing to face the truth and tell the truth about the ways they have done to hurt another person.

* * * * *

When one of my grandsons was only four, he had enough of something one of his cousins was doing, and so he picked up a bucket and banged her over the head with it.  Of course that set up a great wailing in their Montessori classroom where they were both enrolled.

And, of course, the incident was reported to their mothers who are sisters, which set up another one of those conflict of interest things sisters tend to have.  Each of them was torn between wanting her own child to be able to take responsibility for what he had done, and each of them wanted to sort of blame the other cousin.

On the way home, my daughter asked the offender if he had hit his cousin on the head with the metal bucket.

My daughter could  see her child in the rear-view mirror as he sat in his booster seat, sucking his thumb.

He took his thumb out of his mouth and said, “I did,” and put his thumb back in his mouth.

“Why did you do that?” my daughter asked, probably hoping that there was a good reason.

Again, he took his thumb out of his mouth and said, “I just did it.”

Clear and simple, it was.  A confession and a statement of ownership.  No excuses.

Sometimes I have to suck my thumb — symbolically — when I’m up against a wrong I’ve done, but I have to make sure that whatever I do to soothe myself doesn’t encourage me to regress back into my old defects.

What about you?

Is there something you have done that is standing between you and someone else like a brick wall?

Have you tried to make amends before, only to have the other person wind up laying more guilt and bad energy on you?

Has anyone come to you to make amends?  Have you ever rejected another’s attempts at making amends?  How has that worked for you?

Is there something from long ago that keeps on knocking at the door of your consciousness, wanting to be faced and forgiven?   What holds you back from the free flow of grace?

Do you long for peace of mind?

I love the bumper sticker asks the question, “Do you want peace?  Then work for justice.”

Justice is about making things right.  Step Eight is a giant Step toward making things right, with yourself and with other people you have harmed.

Grace comes first, it seems…..and then, peace

I wish it all for you.