3 Pieces of Twelve Step Wisdom for Anyone Seeking Healing

When I started researching the role confession plays on the road to healing, I was intrigued by how Twelve Step addiction recovery programs approach confession.  Every year, millions of recovery seekers in the Twelve Step tradition embark on “a searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admit wrongdoing aloud to God and another human being,” the Fourth and Fifth Steps.  What do these recovery seekers know about confession that millions from religious traditions don’t?  A lot, as it turns out. 

First is that the journey starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches confession believing he had the power to make better choices but chose not to and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  We cling to a pleasing self-image even when the facts of our lives cease to agree with it.  The discrepancy between image and reality draws us into conflict, igniting disharmony within ourselves, with others and with the world.  Acknowledging this disconnect, or brokenness, is like finding a door labeled “healing.”  Acknowledging that we are powerless to make the reality match the image is like opening the door.  

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that only by acknowledging a power outside ourselves and stronger than ourselves can we be reconciled to the self-image we desire.  That higher power can restore us to the image, or conversely, once the higher power is acknowledged, the image we desire might be transformed.   A religious seeker who approaches confession believing she had the power to make better choices in her past runs the risk of walking away from confession unchanged.  She might walk away feeling obligated to make better choices in the future without availing herself of God’s power to help her make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing. 

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of our own will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of any kind.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers might approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  When talking about turning over our own will to make space for God’s power and care, recovery seekers invariably talk of “taking it back” at some point in the journey.  As difficult as creating a power vacuum is, relying on God’s power is more effective than will power.  Despite the immense difficulty of this action, recovery seekers know it’s not enough to think God cares.  They have to trust God’s care. 

These three truths align to the first three of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining nine steps outline a path of spiritual growth and healing that is much more specific and instructive than what most religious doctrine offers.  I’ve been moved by testimony of people who considered themselves religious but could not find the healing they so desperately sought within their faith traditions.  It was the Twelve Steps that got them there. 

Join the conversation.  How does the wisdom in these steps speak to your spiritual journey?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.acrosstraditions.com/.

Forgiving Myself

Recent posts have focused on responsibility and compassion as the secret keys unlocking forgiveness.  But what if the person I need to forgive is me?  What if I don’t feel accepted and loved—by myself, God or anybody else?  How do I find the place where honest introspection feels safe so that taking responsibility and finding compassion for myself are even possible?  

An adroit Beliefnet commenter shared a great insight in response to a post on shame.  Pastorsrus said, “Most do pretty well in loving God (although that love can be distorted because of life experience) and somewhat well in terms of loving others. Most fail miserably at loving themselves.”  And she concludes, “In short, people need to see themselves from God’s perspective, through His eyes.” 

Her insight harmonizes with the approach previous posts contemplated to forgive unremorseful offenders.  Namely, get the offender (in this case, myself) out of the center of the matter and put God there instead.  Rather than focusing on what I deserve, I can focus on what God desires.  Does God want to punish me for all the ways I fall short and miss the mark?  Or is God hoping and waiting for me to turn to him, and in so doing to turn away from the earthly cares that pull me down and away from him?  What kind of relationship will this be? 

What we believe about God informs how we relate to him, so part of the journey entails exploring our beliefs and coming into an understanding, or a deeper understanding, of God.  That will be the topic for the next series of posts, but let it suffice here to look to the analogy Jesus used—that of God as a forgiving parent.  

All summer, my youngest daughter has been persistently breaking all of the few house rules we have.  Do I sit tapping my fingers waiting for the next infraction so that I can leap into punishment?  No, I hope against hope that she will choose to cooperate with her family.  Frankly, we’ve all grown weary of escalating consequences that impact everyone around her, limiting her sisters’ fun to some degree and making more work for parents to enforce than for kids to endure. 

What does God do when we make bad choices?  Scripture does not say whether God gets frustrated or disappointed or exhausted or crestfallen like human parents.  It does say God never stops seeking us, continually giving us grace in his infinite love, and that he is overjoyed by our turning to him.  Christians believe Jesus came into the world to save sinners, helping them return to relationship with God.  On that basis, reconciliation is the whole point of Christianity. 

Reconciliation and healing are mysterious processes.  While we can’t summon them like a twinkie out of a vending machine, we can take concrete steps to expose ourselves to God’s healing power.  Hope arrives when we decide God’s desires for us are more important than what we think we deserve.  When we put God’s desires first and surrender to his unending desire for relationship with us individually, surely we are on the path to healing and self-love.  

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment and found compassion for yourself?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

Healing and Compassion

The definition of “forgive” offered in recent posts is active voice and transitive:  the forgiver releases something.  Often, though, we feel as though the offense has some kind of hold over us that we are powerless to release.  Have we ever felt beset by the same old chestnut, or thought, “I just can’t forgive him for that?”

As victims, we want to be released (passive voice) from whatever hold the wounds have on our psyches.  There’s hope for reclaiming the active voice.  The combination of taking responsibility for our own reactions that merit forgiveness and compassion for our offenders is our best hope for healing.

Having compassion for perpetrators may strike some as a preposterous idea.  They don’t deserve it.  Trailers for Dead Man Walking, the movie based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about a death row inmate, posited, “The real question is not who deserves to die but who deserves to kill?”  Some would argue that death row inmates don’t deserve lethal injection but rather a death at least as tortured as the deaths they imposed on their victims.

Currently in Texas, the victim of a death row inmate is suing the state to stay the execution so that he can exercise his right under law to meet the man who shot him in the face.  The victim wants to a chance to reconcile with his wound-be murderer and to break the cycle of retribution.  Opponents say the death row inmate doesn’t deserve the stay and that the survivors of his murder victims deserve retribution.  As in Florida’s Casey Anthony case, public opinion has weighed in on the side of retribution.

This thinking puts the focus on the offender.  When we feel held captive by the wrongs committed against us, it can be a great liberation to take the offender out of the center of the matter and to put God there instead.  We don’t extend compassion because someone deserves it.  We extend compassion as an appropriate response to God’s mercy towards us.   When I think of all the wrongs I have done–impaired reactions to my woundedness, indefensible acts of willfulness, failing to act when I could and should have, and unthinking habits—I am deeply humbled by the grace God has extended to me.

Understanding the role our wounds play in our patterns of thinking, feeling and acting and understanding how those patterns harm others gives us insight on those who harmed us.  Buddhist monk and activist Tich Nhat Han observes, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.”  Survey your offenders’ patterns.  Who else suffered harm?  Is (or was) your offender equally unsuccessful in all her relationships, or do you observe a different pattern?  Do you know or can you surmise anything about the injuries your offender sustained that led to his wounded-wounding pattern?  Are there clear signs of brokenness?  Do you see anything of yourself in the brokenness of your offender?

Dutch Anglican priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is only real for him who has discovered the weakness of his friends and the sins of his enemy in his own heart and is willing to call every human being his brother.”

Join the conversation.  How have you found compassion for someone who didn’t deserve it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. 

Releasing Resentment

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book offers guidance for starting the Fourth Step “fearless and searching moral inventory.”  Notably, the guidance does not start with contemplating one’s feelings of guilt or shame.  It starts with resentment.  The Big Book declares, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” So how exactly does one release resentment?

The Twelve Step tradition offers some insight and some stumbling blocks.  It guides recovery seekers with resentment “to keep their side of the street clean,” suggesting one might have put oneself in a position where injury or disappointment was possible or likely.  Some recovery seekers strenuously resist this idea.  Unrealistic expectations or a sense of entitlement may have set some up for disappointment, but a startling number of adult recovery seekers were innocent victims of child abuse.  These child victims had no culpability for the crimes committed against them.  Is telling addicted abuse survivors to keep their side of the street clean tantamount to blaming the victims?  Not exactly.  Being wounded sets in motion patterns that, subtly or blatantly, wound others.  Recovery seekers can take responsibility for the part of the wounded-wounding pattern that was in their control, and recovery seekers can forgive the part that was out of their control. 

Naming the offense in forgiveness, or demarcating what is not acceptable, can be a powerful step towards validation, protection and healing.  Conversely, sometimes in the process of naming the offense, we realize that what the “offender” did wasn’t really offensive at all, but that our reaction to it was miscalculated, out of proportion, or reacting to something that was not actually in the content of the offense.  The offender may have made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory.  In my family, we try to adhere to the “When you X, I feel Y” formula for naming offenses.  In the process for isolating “X,” I might realize the problem was really “Y.”  Recognition that the mess is on my side of the street allows me to release resentment and has a reconciling effect. 

Being on the receiving end of a behavior or trait that I myself inflict on others can be especially irritating.  It’s a burr under my blanket.  Paradoxically, if I am able to identify, in any small way, with a weakness in the one who hurt me, that is a significant advantage.  It can wedge a foot in the door to compassion for my offender.  Just to be clear, this is not an exercise in victim blaming.  This is an exercise in self-knowledge and claiming responsibility. 

When leading reconciliation workshops, there is one statement I hear repeatedly from people struggling to release resentment.  They don’t want to tell their offenders they’re forgiven.  They don’t want to give their offenders that satisfaction or to signal any of the things that forgiveness is not, e.g. that the offense is acceptable or that accountability for actions has been waived.  Or they just don’t want to let the offender off the hook, which of course, is precisely what releasing resentment and claim to retribution is.  There is no obligation to tell an unremorseful offender that she’s forgiven.  However, once resentment truly has drained out of us, the fact is we stop caring what the offender knows or thinks about forgiveness either way. 

Join the conversation.  What do you do about seriously stubborn resentments?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Struggling for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment, but what happens when one part is missing?  The last post considered a man’s painful struggle to put the past behind him and to release resentment in the absence of the offenders’ remorse.  I met him in a reconciliation workshop, and in the same workshop I met a woman who had sought forgiveness with sincere remorse for hurtful things she said and did to her mother during adolescence.  Her mother is now 92, and after almost 50 years, still withholds forgiveness.  It pains the woman to know that her mother is unlikely ever to release that resentment, and she continues searching for something she can do to win her mother’s forgiveness.

The Jewish tradition offers a particularly helpful framework for working through this situation.  Teshuva is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance necessary, but not sufficient, to receive forgiveness.  It is a process for turning to God, mending relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self (the self one was created to become).  Although a deeply personal process, teshuva nominally consists of five steps:  recognizing our wrongs, feeling remorse for them, making restitution to those we harmed, confessing our wrongs to God, and above all, stopping the wrongdoing.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuva.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of repentance, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.  It matters not whether someone is beset with indecision or steadfast if in the end he chooses right actions.  The parable of the prodigal son is a great New Testament illustration.  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a new way, or because he was hungry?  It doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

Once the steps are completed, there is a basis for forgiveness.  It is sometimes said that one can only be certain that teshuva is complete if the offender chooses right actions when placed in a situation identical to that which led to his wrongdoing.   However, sometimes the situation is impossible to recreate.  A woman in her 60’s cannot go back to her teenage years to prove her repentance.

Jewish law offers guidance here, too.  Medieval rabbinic authority Mainomides teaches that the offender “must appease and beseech until he is forgiven.  If his fellow man refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of the injured party’s friends and go to him and ask him to forgive.  If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time with three other people.  If he still refuses to forgive he may cease and the other is the sinner.” [Mishneh Torah]

Following this path may not make forgiveness complete, but it does give someone seeking healing hope for making peace with a painful past.

Join the conversation.  Have you been locked in conflict with someone clinging to resentment?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgive and Forget?

“Forgive and forget” is a mantra from my childhood.  I wasn’t particularly good at either but notably bad at the latter.  Is forgetting part of the forgiveness process?  What exactly constitutes forgiveness?

A man I met in a reconciliation workshop had survived child abuse and the wreckage of several family members’ alcoholism.  The depth of his 50-year struggle for forgiveness made an impression on me.  In the struggle, it seems that what forgiveness is not can present as many obstacles as what forgiveness is.

To forgive is to release resentment and claim to retribution.  To be complete, forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment.  Forgiveness does not release the offender from accountability for her actions.  It does not erase financial, legal, physical, emotional, or any other kind of consequences.  Forgiveness does not make the offense permissible.  To the contrary, naming the offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable.  And forgiveness does not restore trust or repair the relationship.  A relationship might not be repairable, with or without forgiveness.   While restoring a relationship to full trust may be desirable, it is not always realistic.  The good news is forgiveness is possible without it.

Trust merits special consideration.  While forgiving is the moral choice, restoring trust might not be.  Should the parents of a child who has been molested by an uncle release anger and resentment for the uncle?   Eventually, yes.  Should the parents return to relationship with the uncle?  Maybe.  Should they trust the uncle?  No.  Evidence suggests molesters reoffend.  Neither family ties nor religious belief require anyone to ignore evidence.   Protecting a child is a parent’s moral obligation.  In this case, the moral choice is to release resentment and, if the uncle has genuine remorse, to return to a different kind of relationship without trust.  Note forgiving the uncle in this scenario would not absolve him of legal consequences for any crimes committed.

Forgiveness can be a struggle if one of the two necessary parts is missing.  This is true for the man in the reconciliation workshop.  His alcoholic brother is in denial and lacks the capacity for remorse, and the father who abused him died.  What can he do when there is no possibility of offender remorse?  Even without genuine remorse, there is hope for healing.

The hope starts with a journey inward–introspection.  Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control.  The very act of changing our wounded-wounding pattern severs the ropes that tie us to a wounded past.  Once free, we can release resentment and pray for our offenders, dead or living, to receive grace.  That does not make forgiveness complete, but it does create healing power.

Join the conversation.  How have you approached forgiveness when your offender lacked genuine remorse?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.