Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it (from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous).
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to work the 10th Step spontaneously. As I was making a left turn in my car, I stopped in the middle of the intersection to wait for the crosswalk to clear. The guy behind me wasn’t paying attention and plowed into the back of my car.
We both pulled over to the curb and I jumped out and ran back to assess the damage. As the other driver tried to apologize, I launched off. I noticed a cell phone in his hand and started yelling about how he was probably texting when he hit me. I was pretty indignant for a guy who himself has sometimes been guilty of pecking at his iPhone while he drives. (My kids have recently broken me of the habit.)
I was about tens seconds into my tirade when something powerful happened inside me. It was entirely unexpected. A stream of clear thoughts formulated in my mind:
You can’t treat him like this. It doesn’t matter what he’s done. You simply can’t treat him like this. His mistake doesn’t give you the right to behave badly. You don’t get to abuse someone just because you’re feeling wronged.
I stopped mid-sentence and turned to look right at the other guy for the first time. He was a young man in his early twenties. I also noticed a child sitting in the passenger seat in his car. And then words came to me; I knew immediately what I needed to say.
“You know what?” I said. “I shouldn’t be talking to you like this. I apologize.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me. I’m the one who ran into your car,” he replied with a very surprised look on his face.
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t deserve to be treated like this. I’m sorry.”
After that, we exchanged information and I got in my car and headed on my way. Fortunately, the damage had been minimal. I’d been lucky. But for the rest of the day, I kept thinking about my behavior. I was so surprised at how quickly I had turned to anger. I thought about how upset the young man must have been when I started taking verbal shots at him. And I wondered about the kid in his car.
The next morning, the thoughts persisted and then suddenly, I knew what I needed to do. I pulled out the scrap of paper he’d given me and dialed his cell phone number. When he answered, I told him who it was, assured him that nothing had come up and then asked him about the boy in the car with him. It turns out it was his nephew. I said I figured the boy must have been pretty scared about the whole situation and asked the driver to reassure him that everything was fine.
We chatted a bit more and even finished the call laughing. He was a barber and told me to come by anytime for a trim and a shave. I had a new friend.
The 10th Step describes a state of being that an addict outside recovery can’t fathom: a willingness to inspect one’s own behavior and then promptly apologize for wrongs and try to make things right. I didn’t used to be able to do this. I was so desperate to bury my own shortcomings in an avalanche of criticism aimed at others. No way was I going to let on that I was in the wrong.
Since that accident, I have realized that there is an important difference between “prompt” and “immediate.” Immediate means “now.” Prompt means something more like “as soon as possible but at the right time.” The Tenth Step suggests a prompt admission of wrongdoing, not an immediate one.
When it occurred to me what I was doing at the scene of the accident, I immediately apologized. But that didn’t completely fix the problem inside me. Even though I had stopped the bad behavior and said I was sorry, I was still bothered by it. Something still wasn’t right.
I think I may have figured it out. Part of it was that my behavior had likely scared the little boy and I hadn’t yet addressed that wrong. Part of it was that I had tried to make immediate amends. I now understand that an apology in the heat of moment is certainly better than nothing and probably even the right right thing at the time, but the better (necessary) way for me to go in this instance was to approach the other driver the next day when things had cooled down and to again admit that I’d been wrong and that I was sorry.
After I finished the call, that disturbance inside me left immediately. I felt humble and grateful. I quit replaying the accident and the aftermath in my head. I was able to let it go. I felt peace.
For me, this is evidence that Heavenly Father is working to change me from the self-absorbed addict I was and still could be into someone who is more useful to Him and his children. I tried for decades to develop humility and compassion for others through self-discipline and will power, to little avail. An addict really is like a wounded animal: completely wrapped up in his own pain and ready to lash out at anyone who comes near.
It was only after my admission of powerlessness over my addiction and my complete surrender to Heavenly Father that things started to change. That was when I became willing to do whatever it took to find recovery. I was willing to go to meetings, get a sponsor, make phone calls and work the Steps. I became willing to make changes on the inside and to do so on God’s terms, not mine.
I’m reminded of what Jesus taught as recounted by Matthew:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift (5:23-24).
That was my experience. I couldn’t be right with God while my “brother [had] ought against” me. All the prayer and scripture study and self-discipline and will power and Sunday meetings in the world wasn’t going to fix this problem. I had to pick up that phone, dial the number and tell someone else a second time that I’d been wrong and that I was sorry. He forgave me a second time and we were truly reconciled. Immediately, I felt a reconciliation with God.
In recovery, I have experienced God’s grace. That grace certainly comes in handy when I’m involved in a fender bender.
Photo credit: Paultantk by way of Wikimedia Commons