Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
I am a serial confessor. In my life, I have whiffed it more times than I can count, and not because I can’t count very high. Of course, as humans, we all make mistakes. But I get very paranoid about making a mistake and not catching it myself. God forbid I would ever trust anyone to actually confront me if they needed to. I know it’s inevitable, but clammit, maybe this time if I just try a little harder, maybe I will know all things.
They say confession is good for the soul, and maybe that’s true, but I’m pretty sure that neurotic confession to try and cover every possible base is not what they were talking about. In fact, I have occasionally created problems that didn’t really exist by confessing something directly to the person I will wrong or inconvenience perhaps at some point in the next 20 years.
One such occurrence happened when I first met my best friend. We did not like each other, but ended up on a team together for this intense 11 month mission trip. I had told the person making the teams that I absolutely didn’t want to be on a team with Sage because I thought she was immature and she wasn’t going to take the trip seriously. Being a missionary is SERIOUS, and I wasn’t about Sage’s tomfoolery. When we were eventually assigned to the same team, aka we would be spending almost every waking and sleeping moment of the next eleven months together, my bless-ed conscience started nagging me. “Tell her,” it said, “You need to come clean. This is a really good idea.”
Spoiler alert: ‘Twasn’t
For some reason, derpy brain told me I absolutely should confess my terrible first impression of Sage directly to her because it seemed vitally important that we start off with “honesty.” It didn’t occur to me at the time that Sage had absolutely no idea I felt this way and that maybe confessing that I thought she was super annoying was not the best way to start a friendship. But I thought that if I didn’t, there would be a problem somewhere in the future and this seemed like the way to prevent it.
So I told her. And it was extremely off-putting. We became for real friends, but not until month 9 of this 11 month trip. Oops.
I relate to the Pharisees (they were the religious leaders of Jesus’ time) a little too much. We are both “should” kind of people. You know, the kind who have very strong opinions about the “right” things to do and be and pretend we are those things. We are experts at appearing to be very good and holy, but in reality are just as derpy as the next yahoo. David Benner in his book The Gift of Being Yourself writes, “Focusing on God while failing to know ourselves deeply may produce an external form of piety, but it will always leave a gap between appearance and reality.” Hello, it’s me.
I feel like, as a writer and a specifically Jesus-y writer, I should have lots of answers, or at least more answers than questions. I feel like I should have very wise and profound things for you to read each and every week. I feel like I should be perfectly applying each and every thing I write about. And so I try to force myself to be all the “should” things by sheer force of will and completely without help. Recognizing that I am not those things, that I am not capable of being all of that and a bag of chips can be painful. Admitting it to myself, to another person, and to God is even more so.
In her book Never Enough, Judith Grisel explains that, “In fact, pain has two primary purposes: the first is to teach us to avoid dangerous stimuli or situations, and the second is to encourage recuperation after failing the first lesson.” Sometimes this is a good thing, like if you break a leg or have a gut reaction to a dangerous person or situation. But for better or worse, our brains like for things to stay the same, even if that same is not good for us. So it signals danger. It tells us to stay away. If I get used to the “should” mindset and the self-reliance mindset, making an adjustment will feel like pain and so I want to avoid it.
But what if sometimes the abundant life promised to us is on the other side of the pain? What if sometimes the thing that feels like death is actually the precursor to new life?
Perhaps the most difficult part of step 5 is having to admit “the exact nature of our wrongs” to ourselves. We are a species who seems determined to see ourselves in the best light, to feel like we are reasonable people whose actions are always completely justifiable. I think that, for most people, if a particular action or word seemed “wrong” or “unreasonable” in the moment, we wouldn’t do it. Or, at the very least, we know it is wrong or unreasonable, we convince ourselves we have a really good reason for doing it, that we are the exception. This is so instinctive, we often aren’t even aware we’re doing it.
It takes a great deal of courage to own our mistakes, to call them what they are, and to talk about them without making ourselves look like the hero or victim of the story. It’s not a one and done process. The Big Book of AA talks about “progress over perfection.” I think that means to put out little trust bread crumbs at first. As a neurotic over-achiever, my tendency is to just shove the whole bakery down someone’s throat, because why not be efficient about it. But progress doesn’t really work like that. There’s always going to be that nagging desire to justify and rationalize and minimize. So we put out bread crumbs and we take one step at a time, one day at a time, one relationship at a time.
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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