"Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." -- Step 9
"At some of these we balked." -- "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) pg. 58 (Meaning, " We looked at some of the Steps and said, 'Hells no, there is no way I am ever doing that.'" That's balking.)
Here's what I wish the Step said: "Avoided the people that we needed to make amends to until the offense we'd committed was so far in the past that we could safely pretend it hadn't happened." I wouldn't balk at that!
Which, kids, before we get into today's Cage Match, I want to say loud and clear -- If it's your first time through the 12 Steps and you're not at Step 9, don't worry about it. Balk at the step you're on. You don't have to get to Step 9 till you've gone through Step 8 -- and the last half of Step 8 is about being willing, so right now, if you're balking, you're not willing, so don't worry about it. (Hey, it's the closest thing to a loophole I've found in AA, so jump through it while you can, kiddos.)
It's a good idea to get through the first 7 Steps before you tackle 8 and eventually 9 (amends) anyway. The people that try to do the amends before they do the Steps prior tend to make amends that go something like, "I'm sorry you were such an asshole and that it made me do what I did." (Like a young man I knew in Seattle, who sent his Mother an "amends letter" in his first week of sobriety, without consulting with a sponsor or anyone else, that consisted of something like 11 typed pages describing all of the things that his Mother had done that forced him to do the things that he was now sorry he had done in response. At the very least I think we can file that under "Unclear on the Concept.")
So for me, here it is: An apology is polite. It is appropriate. It may be long overdue. It may be sweet music to some people's ears when we say it. And an apology, when sincerely made, allows people to practice the act of compassion and forgiveness towards us -- so we both grow, since that can be hard to give and it can be hard to take in.
But sadly, an apology is not enough.
An apology alone is not really making amends. Amends, according to our friends at Merriam Webster, is "compensation for a loss or injury." And further, MW goes on to define compensation as, among other things, "something that constitutes an equivalent." So an amends is not simply an "I'm sorry" (no matter the art form that some of us have elevated the apology to) it is the replacing what we took, hurt or damaged with a thing of equivalent value, if we can.
Not because it makes you a good person. No. Because it sets you free.
Have you ever heard of the supermarket test? Imagine that you're pushing your little supermarket cart down the aisle. (Damn! Why do you always get the cart with that bad wheel!) You round the corner, you look down the aisle and there, reading a label, is Mr. X. He hasn't seen you yet. Unfortunately, a while ago, at a party at Mr. X's house, you went into a blackout and did some very bad things...
Think for a minute of that reaction, in your gut, of how you feel in that moment when you first see Mr. X. It's partly a flutter in your stomach, partly maybe some immediate defiance (because for an alcoholic the fact that we're probably in the wrong has absolutely no bearing on the fact that we ourselves, feel wronged, for being made to feel wrong even though it's all because we were in the wrong to start with! I hurt you, seeing you reminds me of that, so I feel badly, and so now I resent you for making me feel badly! We get angry, defiant and resentful at the person who is essentially triggering a guilty conscience! It would be genius if it weren't so twisted.) Maybe there's a nice dose of shame in there too -- you must be something bad if you did something bad, right? (Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am something bad.)
That's the supermarket test. How do you feel when you see ______ if you turn down the aisle and you see them before they see you. Do you quickly turn your cart around and duck down another aisle, or do you keep going?
And that's what amends will free you from. All that. When I make amends, I'm clean. And, amazingly, I'm free. I may not feel fantastic at the memory of my performance at Mr. X's party (what I can hazily recall, that is) but I can take a deep breath and keep going down the aisle, saying hello and not dodging or grandstanding or grovelling. I'm clean, so I'm free.
So while an apology is good, and often a part of the amends, it, in and of itself, is not an amends. It is the making things right that is the amends.
(Separate from the what an amends is would be the question of if you should even do an amends -- that's a whole other issue, guided by whether or not you will hurt anyone else, and is covered beautifully in the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions".)
AA literature is wise in that in discussing amends it acknowledges that there is no pat answer for all situations, and counsels you to consult with a sponsor and others before rashly moving ahead on some things. But if it's all systems go, then the way I was taught to make amends, and what I've always passed along, is fairly simple. I acknowledge what I did, I make restitution in whatever immediate way I can (in other words, bring your checkbook), and then I ask, "What else can I do to make this right?"
And then I shut up. I let them say whatever they need to say to me, or ask of me whatever they need to ask of me for things to be right between us.
And the amazing thing is, no matter what happens -- no matter what happens -- from spit in your face to hug you and tear up your check -- when you do that, you're free.
That's really what an amends is, and how it's different from an apology. It's not just another hanging your head, feeling like crap and saying "I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again."
It's the opposite of hanging your head -- in fact, when you're done with all your amends, you never have to hang your head again.