I often hear newcomers, people who haven’t yet completed a 4th or 5th Step, talking about how they made amends for this and that in their lives. While I certainly admire anyone who is trying to clear up some of the wreckage of the past, I sometimes wonder about their concept of amends. Since the holidays are coming up and conversations with family members and old friends may be imminent, I thought I might make a few comments about amends and the 9th Step.
First of all, let me say that I’m old-school when it comes to the Steps. I believe that they are numbered for a reason, that each builds upon those that came before, and that we jump around among them at our peril.
That is especially true, I think, in the case of the 8th and 9th steps — which are, after all, the last of the “action steps” of our program. (Steps 10, 11 and 12 are the maintenance steps.) If we have not thoroughly pursued the first seven, it is unlikely that we will be in an emotional and spiritual condition conducive to a good 8th, nor a 9th. I say this because most of us addicts and drunks have no idea how to make a sincere apology, let alone back it up.
Think about this for a moment: In our addictions we spent a lot of time saying things like “I’m sorry,” “I’ll never do it again,” “Please forgive me!,” I’m so sorry,” Oh God, give me another chance,” over and over until people wanted to puke. It’s old stuff; a worn-out act. Now that we’re clean and sober, we are undertaking to approach people who have heard that song before, try to sing it one more time, and expect them to believe it.
Trust me. It doesn’t always go down that way, and if we are unable to convince them this time, when they know we’re sober, we may never get a clear shot at it again. We definitely don’t want to be singing and playing the same old tune on the same old broken down squeeze box, so here are a few things I’ve learned about amends — the hard way.
The first rule of any apology is “say I’m sorry and shut up.” If we expect our apology to sound like anything but a whining excuse for bad behavior, we had better not try to justify it. Never say “I’m sorry, but….” Our listener will totally forget the “I’m sorry” part, and immediately begin building a resentment about the “but.”
“I’m sorry I ruined your life, but I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing” is not an apology. It’s whiny self-justification, and our listener has a perfect right to be pissed off big-time.
“I realize I practically destroyed you financially. I feel terrible about it, and I will do anything I can to make up for it,” is an apology.
The Three R’s
According to a wise and ancient tradition, an apology has three parts: responsibility, regret and repair.
- First of all, we must accept responsibility for what we did, without excuses or justification. (We did do it, you know; not our disease. The previous seven steps should have shown us that. If the message failed to get across, we need to revisit them.)
- Second, we must express honest regret. “Tough about your home foreclosure, forgot to pay the mortgage, sorry,” doesn’t cut it. “You lost your home because of me. I can’t tell you how much I regret that…how sorry I am,” works better. A few honest tears couldn’t hurt, either.
- Third, we must be willing to repair the damage. This is the key to an amends. If we cannot honestly take some kind of step to try to repair what we have done, in some way that means something, we have failed. We may be speaking to a former employer, from whom we embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and because of which we did time in prison. (The time served doesn’t count on the amends — that was our little problem.) We may be able only to afford $10.00 a week, but we can say something like, “I can only afford $10 a week, but I will pay you that $10 for the rest of my life, or give it to your favorite charity.”
This is what amends are about. They are not about seeking forgiveness, although that is the result more often than not, they are about righting a wrong that we committed to the best of our ability.
That is all the 9th Step is about, and if we expect more, we may be sorely disappointed. This writer has family members who did not respond in the way he would have liked, but he also knows that he has done everything he is able to do, and that the choices they have made are not in his hands. Sometimes your victims won’t give you a chance to make amends. That isn’t the point.
In the end, amends are about us. But first they have to be about others.