A couple of days ago, a national newspaper ran an article about how the Internet is giving rise to the phenomenon of the decades-late apology. The article claimed 12-step programs fuel the trend.
The reporter listed several real-life examples of apologies gone wrong: The apology for the trivial slight that the alleged harmed party did not even remember, for example. Then there was the callous, offhand apology delivered via social-networking site that served only to reoffend. The worst, of course, was the apology that reopened old wounds.
It made me cringe to read the article because making amends is one of the most important steps we take in recovery. My sponsor told me that Dr. Bob, who co-founded AA with Bill W., relapsed after he refused to make amends, believing it would harm his reputation. The founding of AA dates from Dr. Bob’s subsequent sobriety.
I’ve heard horror stories in meetings about amends gone wrong. They generally fall into the same categories as the examples in the article. It’s always seemed to me that people most often made these kinds of mistakes when they tried to follow the steps without the guidance of a sponsor.
My sponsor helped me sort through which amends I needed to make directly, and which I shouldn’t. The financial ones were easiest. The textbook I failed to return when I moved was remedied with a check. Some minor harms were addressed by means of living amends in which I would behave differently in the future. Some amends I didn’t make at all because they would cause further harm.
All of this was dictated by the collective experience of my line of sponsorship. It’s an old line, firmly grounded in AA principles, and handed down from “generation” to “generation” almost since the beginning of Al-Anon.
Tradition and experience also dictated the wording and the manner in which I made my amends. I could not justify my actions or talk about the other person’s part. I was to take responsibility for my own part. Admit I was wrong. Ask if there was anything I could do to make it right. I had to listen to whatever the person said in response without interjecting or justifying.
I did my amends face to face, even if that meant getting on a plane (and in some cases, it did). Social networking sites were definitely not allowed.
It’s also important that I made my amends only after I had worked steps 1 through 8. Only then had I done the groundwork that prepared me.
The article concluded with tips for making an apology, including this: “Make sure you are apologizing for the sake of the other person and not yourself."
That runs completely counter to 12-step philosophy. Let’s be clear. We do this for ourselves.
In my line of sponsorship, we study the Big Book of AA, which provided the basis for the Al-Anon program. The Big Book tells us that we make amends to “repair the damage done in the past. We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self will and run the show ourselves….
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway though. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.”
This is what is known in AA as “the promises.”
I believe there is great wisdom in all of this. Having made my amends, I have no horror stories to offer. I can say that making amends the right way strengthened key relationships in my life.
But I've been taught not to expect this. Only to do my part, without expectation, and leave the rest to God.