Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
An AA friend called me the other day and asked for advice about hearing a 5th Step. His question was timely, as I'd just been talking to someone else about the fact that much of the AA literature which discusses the 5th Step is (rightly) focused on the person who's doing the 5th, that is, the person who's written their 4th Step, and is now reading it aloud to "another human being."
But the person listening has an important job as well.
Alcoholics Anonymous asks people to be "searching and fearless" when they make an inventory of their resentments, their fears and their sexual (intimate) relationships. To read that aloud to someone is making a big leap of faith about AA and recovery -- and the person you’ll be reading to.
In the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA's Big Book) there are several pages devoted to finding the right person to hear your inventory (pgs. 72 to 75). This was written of course long before AA had reached the size that it is today, when most people doing the Steps already have a sponsor and are planning to read their inventory to that individual. In those pages there is the suggestion that you can, if you feel you must, read different parts of your inventory to different people. Certainly that fulfills the "letter" of the Step, but my own experience as both sponsee and sponsor is that it's better to have one person hear the whole mess if that’s at all possible. So, without further further ado, here is:
Mr. SponsorPants's Guide to Hearing a Fifth Step
- The instructions in the Big Book suggest that after doing their 5th Step a person goes home (or someplace quiet) and sits for an hour(ish) and reviews the step work that they've done so far, to make certain they've been thorough and to check and be sure they haven't skipped anything or held anything back. So before a sponsee and I even get together to do the 5th I like to make sure they know about that quiet "after" time and they've made space in their day for that. (It's important -- it's not some bullshit meditation thing or some scholastic review of what's been written. In that quiet time is when, on their own, a sponsee will do the 6th and 7th Step -- but I'll get to that in a minute).
- Then, when we meet to do the 5th -- before they start to read their inventory -- I like to show them the place in the book (pgs. 75-76) that describes this "sitting quietly" process, so they know where to find it themselves if they have any questions after they've gone home (or whatever quiet place they've chosen). And this is where I explain taking the 6th and 7th Steps. Most people feel pretty drained after reading an inventory, so I think it's best to front-load the part about 6 and 7 so they can collect themselves and go when they're done reading, rather than have to sit through more suggested instruction on the Steps, or read more from the Big Book.
- Before even one word is read I like to remind people that whatever they read to me will always stay between us, and that goes for however long I may or may not be their sponsor -- in other words, my commitment to keeping confidential information safe is not contingent upon the label of sponsor.
- The role of the person listening to a 5th Step is neither to endorse nor to condemn. The role is to listen. To witness. And so, I listen. Carefully. (If someone is especially nervous or uncertain I remind them that I don't have to be looking at them to be listening to them, and then I sort of sit sideways and try not to look directly at them for a bit. It seems to make people more comfortable.) While they read I will occasionally chime in with a thought, or to ask for clarification, or even to share a similar experience that I've had. (As the Big Book suggests the person listening may do.) And I think, as you listen, it's an important part of the sponsor (or inventory listener’s) role to help people be clear with the "my part" of the inventory -- the 4th column. Sometimes people genuinely will not see their part in something and need it gently pointed out, or, what I find is more common, people will take responsibility for problems and situations that aren't theirs. Or rather, they will take full responsibility sometimes for things they only had a part in. I think as the "witness" it's important to listen for that and help people be clear.
- As mentioned above, the 5th Step flows gracefully right into the 6th and 7th. Part of my job in helping someone do their 5th is to help them understand how to do that so they can then follow through and do 6 and 7 on their own. (And of course that does not mean there isn’t further discussion on the 6th and 7th Steps down the line – those are lifelong challenges, after all, the facing and working on our character defects.) In brief, the Big Book suggests that post-5th Step, during that "quiet time," when you're sitting and thinking about the work you've done so far, after you ask yourself if you've been as thorough as possible, you then look at the "your part" column from the 4th. "Review what we have done," and "ask yourself if you're really ready to have God help you change" (The Big Book says "entirely" ready -- a tall order for most of us.) If the answer is yes, then that is, in itself, the 6th Step: "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." (Meaning specifically the defects of character which have been revealed in the fourth column of the 4th Step.)
- And if you are ready to have God help you change, then it is time to ask God, as you understand God, to change you, that is, to pray the 7th Step Prayer, found on pg. 76 of the Big Book. (And I suggest people really think about what they're asking God to do, and reflect on what the inventory revealed, and to pray mindfully.) So ultimately when I listen to a 5th Step it goes beyond just hearing an inventory. It includes helping people be ready to do the 6th and 7th Steps as well.
Finally, there's this from "Working With Others" which is Chapter 7 in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous:"
"To be vital, faith must be accompanied by self sacrifice and unselfish, constructive action."
If you do all of the above when listening to someone read their inventory you'll be as wiped out as they are -- believe me. But this is a program of action; we work out our own spiritual solutions "on the altruistic plane." And being witness to someone's inventory is one of the most constructive actions you can perform.