STEP 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Recently I was browsing through a newsstand at New Seasons Market when I came across the cover of “The Atlantic Magazine”– an editorial-style magazine that would be described as having a moderate (i.e. center left) political stance. What caught my eye was the cover piece entitled “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous”. I was immediately intrigued by this and took a few minutes to skim through the article, which not only attacked A.A. as having a next to nothing percent success rate, but attacked the efficacy and science behind 12-step programs in general.
Now while I have had my issues with alcohol in the past and I do regularly attend 12-step meetings, I wouldn’t label myself as an alcoholic and I have never been to an A.A. meeting. However what really struck me about this article as well as the other anti-12 step articles and books that have come out in recent years is the virulent anti-religion and anti-spirituality stance that is taken. One of the main shots taken to “prove” the ineffectiveness of ALL 12-step programs, not just A.A., is that they are considered “faith-based”, or that they have some basis in fundamentalism and mysticism.
I will tell you speaking from experience, the “faith” involved in 12-step is as varied as the people who go. There is no institutionalized religion there unless you bring one. The only real faith espoused is in some power or force greater than ourselves that can act as a helpful guide in our lives and the belief that by honestly and continually working a program of recovery specific and unique to ourselves we can remain sober and live healthy meaningful lives.
I will also attest from meeting, conversing and listening to people with many years of sobriety that the 12-step program DOES work. However, not everyone involved in 12-step works the steps earnestly and sometimes circumstances can get the better of us. I’m speaking from experience here too. Relapses happen. Failures can be cited with treatments like cognitive behavior therapy, psychiatric medication, and the many other treatments at the disposal of modern “science-based” counseling and psychiatry. At the end of the day, NO TREATMENT, aside from being locked in a cage, will prevent relapse if the addict’s heart isn’t FULLY committed to it. It also can take time and commitment to find a group that is a right fit for you.
Again, I’m speaking from experience here. The whole idea of “working the steps” is not just about habitually going to meetings or making a dogma out of the A.A. Blue Book or any other recovery literature or format; it is about naked self-honesty, reaching out to others and getting to know the Divine Source that is uniquely expressed in each and every one of us. “Working the program” is doing all of the activities and rituals that keep you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually centered and balanced. Yes, 12-step programs are about spirituality at their core, which will inevitably cause them to be labeled as “un-credible” and “un-scientific” by the medical and scientific establishment.
Again, what I really see driving much of the views of the author of this particular article as well as those of Lance Dodes, M.D. (author of the recently published book “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry”), and others, is this all-out war that materialist science and secular culture has waged on anything that smells like religion over the last century. One should not be fooled into thinking that “science” is somehow on the defensive at this point in history- it is THE dominant paradigm. This has caused a reactionary movement of many who have religious beliefs to try and push back in attempts to defend their beliefs, which has strengthened various forms of fundamentalism. It saddens me to see such a stark rift between science and spirituality being continually perpetuated, when both schools of thought in their TRUE forms are complimentary to one another. It was spirituality that gave birth to modern science.
Much of this “war” is fueled by an increasing resentment of fundamentalism and dogmatic religion (which is arguably justifiable in some respects) that came out of the Enlightenment era (1650s to the late 1700s) and bloomed during the Industrial Revolution (the 1800s) into the modern age. Resentment, however, is quite possibly the most toxic emotion that exists on any level- be it collective or individual. Resentment causes incredible amounts of damage to societies and individuals, acting like a slow rot, eating away at the insides. And the toxicity is cumulative; creating more poison as each seed of resentment grows to maturity.
Resentments are also a key focal point of any 4th step inventory; which is the main topic of today’s posting; and unless you’ve done the deep work of clearing them out, you probably have them, addict or not. We all have had points of our lives where we have felt “wronged”- by a family member, a friend, a significant other, an employer, a teacher. If these things are not recognized and dealt with in a healthy and productive manner, they can fester within us, causing us to hold onto old grudges and false beliefs about others and ourselves. These resentments can provide fuel to unhealthy and self-destructive habits as they try to “reconcile” themselves. The Green Book describes resentment as “one of the most stubborn obstacles to our spiritual growth. Resentment means holding on to old hurts, anger, and grudges.”
The Blue Book states that from resentment “stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have not only been mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”
Typically in a fourth step we will make a list of people and specific situations that hurt us in some way, and identify exactly what they did to cause us harm- be it physically, mentally or emotionally. When I first did my 4th step I joked that it was my “Big Book of Resentments”, because I had A LOT of people I held resentment towards. Over time, we learn to let these resentments go. This is not possible however, if we do not first take them out of the dusty back closets of our minds and shine the light of day on them.
After this step of the inventory is finished, the Blue Book states:
“We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘This is a sick man (or woman). How can I be helpful to him (her)? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”
After we make our “Big Book of Resentments”, we then go back and look at our list and examine each incident. At this point we have to honestly ask ourselves: “What role did I play in this situation? Could I be at fault here somehow as well?”
This can be real, real hard for many of us. The last thing we want to do when we feel hurt by a situation involving others is turn the mirror back on ourselves and see that we too played a part in the drama of pain and misfortune that befell us. Now of course, we cannot necessarily take fault for trauma that may have befallen us when we were small children (I mean, I suppose you COULD if you wanted to try and go into things like past lives and karmic debt, but that water’s a little too muddy for me, and I feel it’s best to accept that it happened and move on). However, as we get into the resentments of adolescence and especially adulthood, we will discover that we’ve almost ALWAYS contributed to our troubles in some way or another.
The second part of the inventory builds on this notion that we have indeed contributed to suffering, not only in our own lives, but the lives of others. This part can be even harder than the last part because we essentially have to own up to all the bad shit we’ve done in our lives. We need to take and accept responsibility for how our actions and inactions harmed others. Now, the point of this IS NOT to beat ourselves up, convince ourselves we are a bad person, or send ourselves into a “shame spiral”. That would be counter-productive to the work we are doing here. Everyone, even the most “saintly” among us has done wrong at some point in his or her lives. Everyone has hurt someone else’s feelings, knowingly or unknowingly. This does not make us “bad people”. We are good people who sometimes don’t always do the right thing.
I see the list and categorization of wrongs as a way of releasing internal guilt. Most of us, on some level feel bad when we hurt someone, even if part of us felt they deserved it at the time. When we own up to our part in the suffering, we humanize those on the “other side” and are better able to, as Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself”. And when we own up to our part in wronging those who may have done no wrong to us, we begin to release the hold that event has had on our hearts. When I finished this, I felt lighter and freer as a person.
There are many different ways to go about doing a 4th step inventory and I have attached a couple PDF versions at the end of this posting to help folks along. The common element is writing about a number of different aspects of our lives that, when put together, give us an honest picture of ourselves, including our shortcomings. When putting my 4th step together, I referred to the people and events I had written about in my first step. However you choose to go about it be sure that your 4th step is indeed a WRITTEN inventory. This helps bring the process into the physical world of manifestation and makes it a more concrete and “real” process for our minds to work with.
The Green Book describes this “moral inventory” in the following manner:
“A moral inventory can be described as a systematic examination of all the beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and actions that have shaped our lives from the earliest years. It is a careful survey of how we respond to people, circumstances, and the world around us. An inventory allows us to go over our lives methodically and objectively, reevaluating assumptions, beliefs, and feelings that we have held onto for years but perhaps never examined or questioned. In making this inventory, we take special care to identify these aspects of our character that have caused harm to ourselves and others, so as to bring them forward for healing and change in later steps… Our inventory is searching, because we try to examine ourselves as thoroughly and painstakingly as possible. It is fearless, because we don’t let our fear stop us from digging deeper. It is moral, because it concerns our values and the consequences of our actions for ourselves and others.”
After we finish reviewing our part in the conflicts of our lives, we see a pattern of “character defects” in our behavior. Character defects are “flaws in our moral nature that prevent us from aligning with God’s Will.” Some of mine include being cynical, evasive, isolating, resentful, selfish, suspicious, and being a perfectionist. It can help us to list these defects of character we see in ourselves so that we can be aware of them when they emerge, allowing us to thwart the negative impact they can have on our lives and the lives of others. Again, if we do not allow ourselves to become fully aware of these “dark” aspects of ourselves, we will never be able to reach our full potential as human beings.
That being said, we should also give our credit for our “character assets”, so as to give us a complete picture of ourselves and to avoid unproductive self-shaming. My list includes being respectful, calm, caring of others, open-minded, altruistic, and polite. We would do well to list more assets than defects to again remind ourselves that we are not bad people, but good people who sometimes do bad things.
Lastly, I made a list of my fears, because as author Adam Elenbaas states in his book, Fishers of Men: Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest, “Without knowing how to face fear, we cannot heal. The two things are the same.”
Fear and resentment are arguably the two most potentially destructive emotions if they are not dealt with in a healthy manner. Some of my fears include fear of rejection and betrayal, fear of losing loved ones, fear of transitions, and fear of not being “good enough”. Now you may find it helpful to list other secondary emotions that drive negative behavior like envy, loneliness, shame or embarrassment. However, most of these emotions are ultimately rooted in fear.
As a word of caution I will say that if you are going to do a 4th step; and I encourage everyone, not just addicts, to do it; please be sure to take care of yourself and be sure to have a good support network in place and UTILIZE IT. Be it a close friend or loved one, a significant other, a group of “fellow-travelers”, a counselor, your spiritual community- whatever the case may be, have SOMEONE to reach out to. DO NOT TRY AND GO THIS ALONE. This step will inevitably bring up some heavy stuff and you will need to take the utmost care of yourself mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. As I have said in the past, if at any point during this process you discover that you indeed have some form of addictive issue, I STRONGLY advise you to get into a 12-step program and/or some form of counseling ASAP. Contrary to mainstream materialist science, addiction can include more than external chemical substances like drugs and alcohol.
I don’t say these things to deter anyone, but rather advise as someone who’s gone through this process himself. This creating of a safe space where we are taken care of and supported will better enable us to surrender to the process. The ego or “lower self” will either try and subvert this process or fight it head on; tooth and nail; so we need to be in a place where we can accept any issue as it comes up and then let it go, rather than being overwhelmed and feeling like a deer in the headlights. I envision myself surrendering unwanted fears, resentments, etc. to the Holy Spirit, having Her carry them away and in their place, my body is filled with Light, while stating out loud that this process is taking place.
This is not a process that needs to be or should be rushed. It took me about 3 months or so to finish my 4th step. Let your intuition be your guide, but at the same time be honest and accountable with yourself as to whether you are indeed taking care of yourself or if your are just putting things off (this is where having somebody working the steps along with you really helps). So until next time, safe travels, Namaste and God Bless.