November 16, 2015
We made a fearless and searching moral inventory of our lives.
So, what’s bugging you about your life? What’s bugging you most?
Do you find yourself doing the same thing, choosing the same self-defeating behaviors, re-creating the same problems in the same kinds of relationships over and over?
Are you in the midst of a situation, demanding to know how you’ve gotten in the mess you are in? (Hint: To whom are you directing that question?)
“Most people flail away at the smoke,” a wise man told me, “but neglect to look at the fire or the cause of the smoke.”
Years ago, I realized that getting to the source of whatever addiction, self-defeating behavior or habit was going to be a great deal more helpful than simply treating the symptoms. At the root of those behaviors that I cannot seem to change is often one of these afflictive feelings:
(Before you read on, take a minute to look at those words again. Number them from 1-6, with 1 being the one that bothers you the most. Hint: If there’s one that you think is no problem, watch out! Look again.)
It was in a Yokefellow Spiritual Growth Group that I learned that whatever the outward problem is, if I can trace it back to one of these motivations, I could work on the problem at the source.
In Yokefellow, those basic feelings were called Sins, with a capital S, and through the years I have learned that other afflictive feelings such as resentment, pride, frustration, jealous and envy, greed and even forms of depression are often a mixture of one or more of those afflictive feelings.
It’s one thing to make a list of the people I resent, but it’s another thing to identify the basic core feelings that fuel the resentment. Separating them out from each other helps to be more specific in the inventory process.
The behaviors that are problematic for us — a critical attitude, bullying, people-pleasing,withholding, using and abusing processes, people or substances to numb ourselves and many other hurtful behaviors are all masks of the real problem, the Sin that fuels the problem. We call the behaviors the sins, with a lower case s, not because they are not as important or as harmful, but to differentiate the behavior from the root cause.
Indeed, this process requires self-reflection and self-honesty, but they yield great benefits.
Once you have identified the root feeling or motivation, you may be astonished at how many other places that feeling causes you trouble. Again, a ruthless self-honesty in this process is a path to freedom, but it should never be seen as a cause for punishing yourself.*
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In this moral inventory, there comes a time to examine your golden shadow or to take a look at the ways in which you have hidden your talents and abilities, your gift or your purpose in life.
It is also helpful to examine the ways you have given your power away to others — either your power to make choices or your power to live your life according to your values. You may have taken the easy road through life, doing what other people tell you to do or want you to do, living to please or placate others and missing what Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.”
(Hint: If you often feel resentment toward others, take a hard look at where you may be giving your time, your resources, your personal power away to someone else. Takers are good at finding people who easily give in and give up to their whims, and givers are good at finding people who will use them for their own purposes. Always, there is a need for balance in a relationship; when someone either takes or gives all the time, the relationship is clearly off-balance.)
Some questions to guide this exploration are these:
- Do you feel that you have neglected taking responsibility for any part of your life that belongs to you?
- How have you “hidden your light”, either living through others, fearing failure, blaming others for not “letting” you shine?
- How often are you jealous or envious of others’ accomplishments or achievements?
- What dreams about your life have you relinquished because you simply “never got around to it”?
- Do you blame anyone in your life for any failure or problem
- What excuses do you tell yourself and others for the reasons for your failure to be, become or do what you want? How is that working for you?
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Always, the purpose of examining one’s own life is to assume adult responsibility for what you have done that has hurt others and what you have not done that you should have/could have done.
I will never forget listening to Dr. James Hollis, Jungian analyst and author discuss the problem of being “guileless”, which is a word often used as a compliment . Dr. Hollis firmly repudiated the compliment and made it clear that to be guileless often means that you are unconscious either of your own flaws and defects and those of others. Often, those who carry a Pollyanna attitude about life or those who make a career of never calling a spade a space simply cannot bear the thought of looking bad to others.
Childlike innocence in children is a beautiful thing, but that same behavior in adults can be dangerous, and Hollis urged those of us in his classes to be bold in dealing with the toxic waste dump of unprocessed feelings and motivations in our own inner lives and to face the violence within our own lives so that we would not project it out or take it out on others.
As I write these words, I am heartbroken over the latest acts of terrorism in Paris, a city I have come to love. As I have watched the stories unfold over the past few days, I have remembered Hollis’ words after 9/11. He had much to say about what could happen if the people who have inflicted violence on innocent strangers had dared to face the violence in their own lives. The truth is that that which is not healed, forgiven, addressed, managed in our own inner lives will be sprayed out onto others, one way or another. What happens in one’s inner life gets expressed in the streets, in the boardrooms and in the marketplaces of our lives as we take out our pain on other people.
For more about this, I highly recommend Hollis’ masterpiece, When Good People Do Bad Things.
The Fourth Step is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and healing activities or personal practices I have ever experienced. It is one of the clearest ways to inner freedom; it is the way of taking full responsibility for one’s life.
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What about you?
If you feel that you have wasted your life, what is the way forward?
If you are caught in a trap of blaming others for the state you’re in, what would happen if you started taking responsibility for your own life?
What about those secrets you harbor and the things you are afraid to tell about yourself?
Have you ever heard the truth that says, “We are as sick as our secrets”?
Have you ever had the feeling that if anyone knew you, they wouldn’t like you?
Is there someone who has tried to help you that you keep pushing away? What’s that about?
Are you dying with your song still in you, yet unsung?
What are the excuses you tell yourself and others about why you are the way you are and why you do the things you do?
Do you secretly long for another chance to live a day, a week, a lifetime in a better way?
Can you see this self-examination as an act of love you give yourself?
What’s the biggest fear you have about getting sane and sober, free, healthy and strong, serene and at peace with yourself, your addictions, your pain, your life?
In that same Yokefellow Group I learned the following words, which are full of grace and mercy for me.
I am neither bad nor good, but both,
and because God accepts me, I will accept myself.
I am neither selfish or unselfish, but both,
and because God understands me, I will accept myself.
I am neither loving nor unloving, but both,
and because God loves me unconditionally, I will love myself.
Grace to you–
- *I have written more extensively on this process in my book Joint Venture: Practical Spirituality for Everyday Pilgrims, published by Smyth and Helwys Publishing.