October 6, 2015
We made a fearless, searching moral inventory of ourselves.
“This Step is what separates the men from the boys,” my sponsor told me, beaming her dark brown eyes in my direction.
I laugh now, thinking about how the “men from the boys” wasn’t even a glancing blow to my consciousness. It should have, but it didn’t.
In these decades since that moment when my sponsor set my feet on a new path of awareness and accountability, I learned that when it comes to the Steps, some people never get past the Two-Step, doing Step One (admitting powerlessness) and Step Twelve (bringing someone else to the meetings) or the Recovery Waltz, doing the One-Two-Three of the first three steps, but coming to a dead halt at the thought of moving on to the Fourth step and doing a moral inventory.
It is pretty terrifying, unless staying in the pain is worse.
The first time I did a Fourth Step, it was a pretty feeble attempt to name my flaws and list the things I had done that had hurt other people or myself.
In the first place, my sponsor was pretty easy on me, and besides that, I still had residual effects of an image of God that demanded perfection and punished imperfection and mistakes harshly.
That God-image I carried, albeit unconsciously, had a profoundly negative effect on my developing self-image. To put it bluntly, I was afraid to tell the real truth about myself, even to myself. I held back and so did she, and so I pretty well flattened out at that point.
Finally, I chose a woman who is what I have called a “black belt sponsor”, a woman who had worked the Twelve Steps rigorously for over twenty years. She took me on with great hesitation, but I was persistent. She told me she was tough, and I told her that that was what I wanted. She was a recovering alcoholic and had worked the Steps to save her physical life, and sometimes she would put her head in her hands in despair over me and say, “It would be so much easier if you were a drunk, but your gods look good.”
(She was talking about my codependency and my tendency to put persons on what she called the throne of my life. She was right. Workaholism and codependency are hard addictions to break because we who practice those patterns get praise for them. Furthermore, when we begin to make the changes necessary for our survival, the persons who have benefitted from our addictions to pleasing them, performing for them or idolizing them aren’t happy.)
To my sponsor’s credit, she hung in there with me, and I began to work on those Steps as if my life depended on it. The truth is that it pretty much did, but it took me forever to recover even a little bit from my need to please.
I worked hard on the Fourth Step, mostly because I desperately wanted to experience some relief from the pain I was inflicting on myself, but if I tell the truth, I also wanted to please my sponsor and make her glad she was hanging in with me. (See? Sometimes our flaws and our complexes actually help us get to the places we long to be!)
Before I set out on this part of the venture of self-discovery, my sponsor had me read about the Fourth Step in the Big Book, and then she began setting some direction for me. I remember feeling that this was going to be an extremely important and liberating effort.
My sponsor started out by talking about an inventory as being an assessment of both the strengths and the weaknesses, assets and liabilities. “We aren’t going to talk only about your failures and your sin,” she told me. “We are going to take an inventory of your good qualities.”
What a relief it was to think in terms of an inventory.
Once she thought I had grasped the concept of an inventory of my life, she expanded the idea of what “moral” meant, in terms of this Step.
“One of the ways I’ve come to look at the word “moral” is in terms of who makes me whole and what keeps me from being and becoming whole.”
We sat in the afternoon sunlight for a long time as I began to make a shift from viewing myself as either good or bad, right or wrong to a broader, deeper and more loving view of my life as a journey and wholeness as the ultimate goal. Suddenly, something in me began to relax as I pondered my sponsor’s words, but also felt her acceptance of me just as I was.
In that tender moment, I began to move slowly and ever-so-carefully from an either/or perspective to a both/and view of myself, a view that was merciful enough to include all the parts of myself.
“It wouldn’t be right for you just to list the negatives,” she told me, gently. “Besides, I am pretty sure you would beat yourself up, and that is not the point of a Fourth Step. We must list your positives and you must claim them as much as you claim the negatives, or it won’t be a moral inventory.”
Not only did I feel this woman’s acceptance, but I began to feel a kind of grace. In that moment, she brought no judgement to the conversation. I wasn’t going to have to earn her approval by telling her only my polished up life, nor was I going to get her disapproval for the mistakes I had made. Whatever I found in this moral inventory of my life, I was going to bring into the light of grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Whatever my sponsor said or did to convey those qualities to me, I knew she had received and worked deep into the soil of her own life. She could be with my stuff calmly and with no condemnation because she, too, had experienced the acceptance of her imperfect life.
She had been radically honest, and it had saved her life, and so she could give me the safety of coming clean, first to myself, in an inventory of my life.
* * * * *
And so it was that I went to work with the first part of my inventory.
My sponsor asked me to go through my life, listing everyone I resented. She wanted me to write the names in a notebook and tell exactly why I resented them. She asked me to tell what kinds of actions I had done that harmed me or that person by holding or expressing resentment.
I thought the assignment would be easy, and parts of it were. Parts of it surprised me, and there were situations I wanted to leave out. My sponsor had told me, however, that this was to be done in ruthless honesty, and that if I wanted to recover from my need to please, I’d better tell the unvarnished truth.
And so I began, and that first Fourth Step was going to set me on a path of self-awareness and God-consciousness like nothing else ever had.
What about you? Have you ever worked a Fourth Step?
Do you long to be able to be free from those things you did that you wish you hadn’t done and the things you didn’t do that you wish you had done?
Do you keep repeating the same mistakes, never figuring out why it is you self-sabotage, choose the wrong partners over and over, keep having to learn from the same mistake?
I highly recommend the Fourth Step. It’s been a powerful, even miraculous tool for those of us who are flawed human beings, stumbling around, but sometimes soaring.
Grace to you —