Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
We pick up the tale of Mr. Goose this week at the moment of making amends and telling my parents what happened. Every week, our main teacher sent us home with a folder that had graded assignments and a page that held our conduct grade from that week. Catholic school, am I right? My conduct grades at my Catholic elementary school were not great. I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t not talk to whoever was sitting next to me. Middle school was different. I mean I still couldn’t sit still, but I could at least keep my mouth shut. Mostly. So my conduct grades up to this point had been stellar… or at least better.
Every week, we took the folder home and one of our parents had to initial that they had seen it. I had gotten a zero once before, after being accused of plagiarizing a current events report when I couldn’t define the word “ruse.” In my defense, I could, I just got nervous when the teacher put me on the spot. In the teacher’s defense, my mom had a substantial hand in the writing of the report, so I couldn’t qualify it as fully my work. This was the second time I had taken a zero home and I wasn’t about to make the mistake of giving my parents time to punish me.
Punish is a strong word. I have never been grounded. But any time I got in trouble, I received a seemingly endless lecture in which the situation and my actions were thoroughly dissected and analyzed. For me it was worse than losing computer privileges, or whatever happens when one is grounded. My punishment was always of a psychological nature.
In order to curtail that specific type of hell, I held onto my folder all weekend, waiting until the moment my mom dropped me off at school on Monday morning to thrust the folder at her. “Oh, I almost forgot; you need to sign this.” She, of course, noticed the zero and asked what had happened. I said, “Oh nothing, it was really dumb. I hid the answer book from Mr. Goose so he would actually have to teach us. Just sign; I’m going to be late.” And for the most part, that was that.
If you’ve been tracking with me for this entire series, the former is an example of how NOT to do step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Walking into Algebra that day was one of the most profoundly awkward moments of my life. And that’s saying a lot. I was to make direct amends to Mr. Goose for something that I was not sorry for. I was, of course, sorry that I had gotten caught and couldn’t talk my way out of it. Passive aggressively hiding the answer book was one thing. Saying to his face that I thought he was a bad teacher was another thing altogether. I was thirteen, not a sociopath.
I dragged my feet and moaned and complained every step of the way to that bless-ed classroom with the closet that betrayed me. Susan and I walked into the classroom and went up to Mr. Goose. I hung my head in shame and said, “I’m sorry we hid the book, Mr. Goose.”
“Why would you do something like that?” he asked.
I took a deep breath, glancing at Susan and said something along the lines of, “Well, we wanted you to teach us not just copy from the answer book. We thought that if you didn’t have it, you would be more confident.”
This conversation happened over fifteen years ago; it might not have gone down exactly like that. But I basically wanted to cover my bases, make myself look good, and somehow come out of that with Mr. Goose not hating me. I may have painted myself as an endearingly cheeky rebel in this story. I can assure you that I have an existential need to not disappoint authority figures.
This is possibly the best formula for an insincere apology that’s out there. As far as my apology skills go, I either go for this method or the groveling, I-am-the-worst-and-most-pathetic-worm-on-this-planet-please-affirm-my-self-loathing method. According to AA, neither of these are on the money. Making amends should be “straightforward and generous.” And they should not cause harm to the recipient of our amends.
Humans have a hard time letting go of our pride and our agendas, and never more so when confronted with wrongdoing. And yet a genuine apology requires humility, and is mutually beneficial. As the AA guidelines on Step Nine state, “While we may be quite willing to reveal the very worst, we must be very sure to remember that we cannot buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others.”
It’s a compelling thought. I wonder how many times I have apologized to make myself feel better, or out of obligation, or to control the other person’s perception of me. How many times have I apologized in a way that genuinely sought the well-being of the wronged party? Perhaps that is why making amends is so far down the list of the steps to recovery. Without space and a clear head, I am liable to make the apology about satiating my own guilt, as opposed to promising changed behavior.
I read a quote somewhere that said an apology without change is just manipulation. In Christian speak, we call a genuine apology that includes a change of direction “repentance.” Biblical repentance calls for a complete change of direction toward God’s mercy. This separates shame from repentance. Shame leaves us where we are. Repentance offers us a way forward. 2 Corinthians 7:10 states, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
With Mr. Goose, I was apologizing for several reasons, all of which benefited me and only me. I wanted to avoid further trouble. I wanted to look good in spite of my wrongdoing. I wanted to justify myself. I wanted to assuage my guilt, guilt that came from getting in trouble and not from my vindictive motives and actions.
In Step 5, we talked about admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, about revealing them to ourselves, God, and another person. If my first repentance is to God, then I can pour the weight of my needy soul there. If I heap it onto the person I have wronged, I only add to their burden and my own. But if I can first air the exact nature of my sin before God, I receive mercy, love, and grace and so I don’t need to look for these soul-level needs from the other person. I free the other person to receive and respond to my apology however they will.
This is really hard and we aren’t going to nail it. Our humanity is always going to butt in and make us needy and uncomfortable; it will cause our brains to short and before we know it a justification is pouring out of our mouths. I am almost guaranteed to get at least a little defensive more often than not. This makes me want to take several thousand steps back for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing more harm. But the irony is that we learn to love God and others by loving God and loving others. I can seek advice from relationally wiser friends and mentors, I can humbly present my requests before God. But at the end of the day, if I want intimate relationships, I have to take the risk.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, check out the resources on the Alcoholics Anonymous website, or call this National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
What do you think?
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