Forgiveness and Recovery

By Galen T.

I was recently working the Twelve Steps with a sponsee when I began to ponder whether the steps are incomplete. My sponsee and I were on Step 8, reviewing the list of the people to whom he wanted to make amends; they ranged from his grandparents to a recent girlfriend. As we discussed each relationship in detail, I was struck by their complexity. In each case, my sponsee had done the person harm, but in many of the cases, they had also caused him pain. Of course, this reciprocity of hurt, so to speak, did not take him off the hook: he still needed to make his amends. But it did make me wonder why the steps focus on making amends but much less on the importance of forgiving others for harms they have done to us.

Nobody can spend long in AA without hearing about the importance of making amends. But we hear less about the importance to our recovery of forgiving others the hurts they have caused us. And when it comes to how to forgive others, our literature gives us little concrete guidance. Based on years of watching people get sober and recover, I think forgiving others is as important as making amends.

Why not recognize the importance of forgiveness by adding (informally and unofficially, of course) a couple of new steps to the ones we have. They follow the amends steps and mirror their language and structure.

Step 9a- Made a list of all persons with whom we were angry and became willing to forgive them all.

Step 9b- Forgave such persons wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

I have begun using 9a and 9b with both myself and my sponsees, and this has led me to think about several questions. What does it mean to forgive another? How do you go about forgiving? How does one know when forgiveness has taken hold?

There is an abundance of information on bookstore shelves and the Internet tackling these and other issues related to forgiveness. Some resources are authored by academics like Robert Enright and Fred Luskin, others claim scientific validity based on empirical studies, while others draw principally from the personal accounts of average people like us who have been able to forgive severe harms.

Out of this wealth of personal stories, information and analysis, four consistent themes emerge. First, our capacity to forgive is greatly helped by having an accurate understanding of what forgiveness is and is not. Second, people are capable of forgiving nearly every sort of harm and hurt, though it may take persistent effort over time. Third, the most powerful reason to forgive is neither religious nor moral, but because of the benefits, it brings to our own lives. Fourth, the more forgiving we do, the more forgiving we become.

What Is Forgiveness?

One of the reasons forgiveness is complicated is that it is easily confused with what it is not. Before exploring this, let’s try on for size a positive definition of forgiveness that is grounded in current research and thinking on the subject.

Forgiveness is the relinquishment of negative emotions such as anger, judgment, and resentment that we have toward another person.

Notice that this definition makes no reference to warm, fuzzy feelings or the restoration of an amicable relationship with the forgivee. Forgiveness does not include or necessarily lead to, reconciliation. Reconciliation can accompany, or arise from forgiveness, especially when the hurt inflicted is mild, and the relationship has been close and ongoing. Partners in healthy marriages, for example, usually cite a capacity for mutual forgiveness as essential to the happiness and longevity of their partnership.

But in many cases, reconciliation is not desirable, safe, or perhaps even possible. For example, when an adult is trying to forgive a parent for childhood abuse, reconciliation is often not an appropriate goal, particularly when the parent is unwilling to acknowledge the damage caused. Although most experts agree that repentance on the part of the forgiven person does not need to be a precondition for forgiveness, it is difficult to restore warm relations without the offender recognizing and apologizing for the harm he has caused. Reconciliation is a step beyond forgiveness. “Mere” forgiveness does not require the acknowledgment or participation of the forgivee.

A second misunderstanding is that forgiveness relieves the other party of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not condone nor pardon an offense. This is especially significant when legal factors come into play. Forgiveness does not exonerate others for offenses that should be prosecuted by law.

Third, forgiveness is not the same as discounting or suppressing the hurt we have experienced. We can sometimes be too quick to dismiss the impact of an event on our feelings. After all, the admission of having been hurt requires us to acknowledge our vulnerability and perhaps suppress our anger. This denial and suppression of feelings is not healthy, especially for those of us in recovery. We need to experience our anger and hurt and communicate about it with others before we can move on to the business of forgiving.

Finally, when we forgive a wrong, it does not mean we forget it. Forgiveness does not always wipe away the hurt we feel, and we may still need to exercise caution in our relationship with the other person so that we don’t make ourselves vulnerable to re-injury.

Why Forgive

Few of us have a naturally forgiving nature. To forgive others takes focused intentionality. It takes work, and we have so many “issues” to work on, why devote energy to forgiveness?

Psychologists who conduct studies on forgiveness are quick to point out that the practice of forgiveness is associated with both physical and mental health benefits, including lowered blood pressure and reduced levels of stress. People who forgive enjoy better health, but it is not clear whether this is correlation or causation. Nevertheless, sufficient studies have been conducted to show a connection between the capacity for forgiveness and increased mental and physical well-being. The connection is particularly strong for those who develop a generally forgiving attitude toward others and don’t get preoccupied with petty resentments.

When it comes to health benefits, alcoholics have a particular incentive to forgive. As Living Sober succinctly states, “Our anger can kill us.” This echoes language in The Big Book cautioning us that resentment is the “biggest offender.” Anger and resentment that are allowed to smolder can create such turmoil within an alcoholic that he is driven back to alcohol to soothe his emotional unrest. We try to drum this lesson into the heads of newcomers, but it applies equally to those with decades of sobriety. Even after 20 years sober anger can derail our recovery and make us vulnerable to relapse.

Of course, we can be both angry and sober, but why live in such an unhappy state when we don’t need to. Our literature points out that anger can’t be compartmentalized, but instead usually spills out into and poisons many areas of our lives, even when we are unaware of this. A strong resentment or anger undermines our capacity to love and to develop the positive character traits that we desire.

What does full and contented sobriety look like? Most of us would agree that it includes qualities like humility, open-mindedness, and generosity toward others. And at its heart, a full and robust recovery is marked by a whole-hearted capacity to give and receive love. Resentment and anger get in the way of this flow and impede our ability to feel emotions such as peacefulness, gratitude, and joy. So, working on forgiving others, though hard work, pays off.

A Few Ideas About How to Forgive

If we want help in learning how to forgive others, we can find plenty of advice from philosophers, psychologists, lifestyle consultants, and spiritual gurus. Some of it is glib and simplistic, but much is sensible. Most of us need to put together a combination of strategies that work for us. Our personal recipe for forgiveness will depend on several factors, including the nature and severity of the harm we suffered. Some offenses we may be able to forgive quickly and easily while others can take months or even years of persistent effort.

With this in mind, let’s look at several aids to forgiveness attested to in the literature and verified by people like us in practice.

  • When I was young in the program I was taught to pray for the person I was angry with. I was taught to pray on this every day for at least two weeks and to pray it out loud. When I followed these instructions, it was effective in reducing, if not completely eradicating, my resentments.
  • In recovery circles, we sometimes hear the question, “How important is it?” Contrasting my own situation with those of those suffering under far worse burdens puts my own struggles into perspective and helps me from over-catastrophizing my circumstances. I can draw courage and resolve from those who have forgiven far worse than what I am faced with.
  • The practice of loving-kindness meditation can also be effective. This often begins with several minutes of simple breathing meditation followed by a calling to mind of a person on whom we wish happiness, health, and well-being and an absence of fear, stress, and illness. We then wish the same things for ourselves. Third, we bring to mind a person for whom we have a resentment or toward whom we carry anger. We wish for them same well-being we desire for ourselves along with a similar absence of fear stress and illness. You can find more information about loving kindness meditation at contemplativemind.org and buddhanet.net.
  • Buddhists have a notion called dependent origination. It suggests that people commit hurtful acts because they themselves have been hurt. When we can understand and identify with the other person’s weakness and pain, and the reasons for it, this can help us sympathize with the other person and to take the hurt they have caused less personally.
  • Another way of maintaining perspective is to feel and express gratitude for sources of joy and well-being in our own life. Gratitude does not annul interpersonal pain, but it cultivates humanity, humility, and benevolence toward others.
  • I remind myself that my anger toward the other person does him less harm than it does me and that it is for my own sake that I forgive. Why should I allow the actions of another person affect my measure of serenity and contentedness?
  • Finally, there is something to be said for a change of focus. I recently aired a resentment I had toward a person in the program with my sponsor. I had tried some of the advice I just passed along above but made little headway. So, I took a deep breath and laid it all out in front of him, embarrassed though I felt that I had not achieved greater spiritual stature. I then awaited his sage advice. After thinking for a moment, he said, “Ah, what the hell. Just don’t think about the guy so much. Think about something more pleasant, like giving your wife a hug when you get home tonight.” Initially, I was a bit taken aback by the, well, the simplicity of this counsel. I had expected something deeper, more complicated. I sat for a moment. A mutual friend sitting in on the conversation said, “That’s right, or think about how lovely your Christmas tree will look after you decorate it. I nodded and eventually headed for home rather bemused. But, what do you know, it worked.

(For more forgiveness strategies visit greatergood.berekely.edu)

The Heart of Forgiveness

I later realized a reason my sponsor’s advice was effective. Before he gave it, he had listened carefully to my description of the events producing my resentment and to my feelings about the other person in question. The most important step we can take toward forgiving others is to talk through our anger and resentment in detail with another trusted person. This is what the experts miss, but which I have learned from the program and fellowship. The modern recovery movement grew out of a long conversation between two drunks, and talking is still the life-blood of our potential for transformation.

Too much of the guidance on forgiveness keeps us in our heads. Experts cite such keys to forgiveness as becoming “forgivingly fit,” “addressing our inner pain,” finding meaning in our suffering,” and “developing a forgiving heart.” These suggestions can be helpful, but they target the mental apparatus instead of engaging the deeper level of our emotions where both anger and forgiveness originate. Anger is an emotion that we cannot think our way out of, while forgiveness is an emotional challenge that we can’t think our way into.

We generally don’t brew anger or concoct resentments out of whole cloth in the solitude of our kitchens or bedrooms. These are emotions derived from our interactions with other people. It stands to reason, then, that they are best addressed through human interactions. The most effective way to move toward forgiveness is by talking to another human being. We might think of this person as a forgiveness partner.

There are no rules for who our partner should be, as long as they are an attentive listener, perceptive questioner, and trustworthy. It could be our sponsor, a therapist, or a friend, as long as the individual brings out an objective voice and can point out our part in the problem.

We sit down with our partner and tell them everything that has happened between us and the forgivee. We discuss our prior relationship with the “offender” and any subsequent interactions we have had with them. Comprehensiveness and detail are critical. Generalities do not help us place our circumstances in the right perspective for resolution. How often have we said to somebody, “Yeah, I’ve talked about it,” when all we have done is skim the surface. This doesn’t work. Bill W. knew the importance of specificities when guiding us on the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 9th steps. His counsel is equally apt here.

Conversations with our forgiveness partner may also wander into unexpected areas such as aspects of our childhood, others we are or have been angry with, and feelings of guilt for wrongs we have done others. These side tours are usually helpful to our final objective, even if they lead to more than one meeting.

Some people might wonder what good can come of all this jabbering. A lot. First, it externalizes the events that trouble us and thereby make them concrete, defined, and more manageable. This helps us sort through what happened and gain a clearer picture of both the events themselves and our reactions to them. This helps lessen the intensity of our anger, and uncovers our hurt and vulnerability, giving us a life-line of identifiability with the forgivee. At the same time, the act of telling our story shores up our self-respect, mitigates our sense of having been unfairly victimized, and even broadens our perspective enough to include compassion toward the person we are angry with.

All this processing reduces the virulence of our raw emotions, gives us a fresh perspective on ourselves and the other person, and helps us to make a sensible choice about how to proceed. We cannot do all of this in our heads. In fact, we are likely to become even more tangled up. We need to do it out loud, in conversation with another human being. After we have accomplished this, several of the suggestions from the previous section may emerge as even more relevant and helpful.

To forgive another person we usually need to make a decision to do just that. Down the road, a resentment can resurface, and we may need to recommit ourselves to our decision and reapply several of the forgiveness tools we first deployed. This does not mean that our original efforts failed, just that life is complex and that at different points along the way our sensitivities can change.

An encouraging coda is that like many of life-enhancing recovery behaviors: forgiveness is contagious. It will infect other people, for the wider benefit of all. It even infects us in that the more we commit acts of forgiveness, the more naturally forgiving and serene, we will become. Forgiveness is like a muscle—the more often it is used, the heavier the weight it can lift. The more forgiving we do, the more spontaneously forgiving our personality becomes. We can’t, or at least I can’t, do this alone. I need my sponsor, the program, and the support of the fellowship. But with all these supplying the wind to my sails, I can glide higher and farther than I ever imagined when I was chugging down one bottle of vodka after another.


About The Author, Galen T.

Galen spent most of his career in the ordained ministry and in counseling. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, step-daughter, a dog, and two cats. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in his local AA groups.

Photography

Original Photography by Jan A.

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send him an email at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

Print Friendly

Comment

  1. Kit G February 4, 2017 at 5:35 am - Reply

    Excellent article and most excellent comments all.

  2. michael February 2, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Without the other’s request for their forgiveness, one is faced with the difficuty of carrying resentment about the injustice done to oneself. We want that from the other. It will not be so. What to do?
    It is the same with guilt. We wish to be forgiven by the other we have harmed, but they will not do that, or they may no longer be available, or we are too afraid to ask them for it.

    Long term resentment without any resolution can be a great excuse to continue drinking, or to go back to it. I spent years in a drunken haze cultivating my resentment, seething with dismay, wishing for the day to come when those that harmed me would apologize. I sometimes drank with a guy drenched in perpetual guilt over the harms he’d done to others.

    Soooooo……here’s how the resolution came to me. My aged mother was in a nursing home.
    It was suggested that I visit her. I did. There were some notions of getting an apology for all she did to us, but mainly the idea that I felt obligated. I found her to have some dementia, large memory gaps from a series of strokes, and failing health.

    Looking upon her in that way, quite suddenly, all I could see was the frightened little girl
    she once was, an only child, with no siblings to be safe with, the victim of a drunken mother, and an
    equally drunken stepfather who sexually abused her.

    I looked into the eyes of someone whose life schema was written upon her long ago by others, by the dangerous and violent slum that was her place of origin, and yes, the small degree of kindness she was at times able to muster despite the lifelong effects of her extended trauma and resulting mental illness . And no, she never resorted to alcoholism to quell her confusions.

    All resentment melted away in that moment, and all I could do was to kiss her on the forehead and tell her I loved her. That was to be our last meeting.
    I truly learned what both love and forgiveness are on that day.

    As I see it now, all persons at the core are beautiful. Perhaps that may never be seen
    by others, or themselves in their entire lifetime, but it is there. 

    • Gerald February 3, 2017 at 2:20 pm Reply

      Thanks, michael. I am privileged to be the person who breaks the intergenerational cycle of emotional poverty. I’m giving my children what I needed but did not get.

      My parents didn’t have it to give, simple as that. You can’t pass on what you don’t have …

      … but you certainly will pass on what you do have, whether you want to or not, no matter how much you don’t want to pass it on, you will pass it on. Oh, yes, you will pass it on. It’s not your fault, but you will pass it on … Unless you learn better than you were taught!

      And as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

      … People don’t choose to be sick, and God doesn’t make them sick. Their parents do. Society does. For most of the unhappiness in life it’s just as simple as that.

      It’s cause and effect, and no extra-dimensional being is required to explain this human reality. Other higher animals, too, can be so psychologically traumatized in youth as to be rendered incapable of ever becoming a proper animal parent and/ or proper member of their animal society.

      It’s too late for me to write a new beginning, but it’s not too late to write a new ending to the story of my life 🙂

      Thanks,

      Gerald

       

      • RonB February 3, 2017 at 8:19 pm Reply

        Gerald, the core of your post is reality. Our beliefs are indoctrinated from birth by socialization and parents play a predominant role before shool days. The functions of mind increase slowly through childhood and skepticism is rare, the child accepts the reality of his indoctrination. Religion is a further complication to be unravelled in adulthood. Our reality becomes that of our indoctrination and despite restrospective considerations of our childhood problems they are the product of the imposition of today’s social norms on those of a generation beforehand and of a period when comparison was not possible, given only one set of parents existed, even if such comparisons were cognitively possible at such an age. My beatings are noe considered child abuse but they were normal in my childhood.

        A parent has a prime responsibility of reproduction and protection of the species, to be able to write on this site is proof of their success. All thoughts of wrongs and sins are simply issues contrary to your belief system, which evolves and must always, therefore, be wrong. This applies to percieved wrongs of parents and of self. If you wish to punish yourself with beliefs in personal wrongdoings that is your choice but don’t interfere with others. Your suffering in giving me a black eye does not mean I need your attonement, reminder of it or belief in it. If you choose to suffer then don’t impose it on others. If you believe a parent has harmed you then keep your reality to yourself because the parent will likely believe otherwise and you simply carry pain unneccesarily, your choice but nothing to do with anyone else. It’s called taking responsibility for your own beliefs and actions rather than finding excuses, it’s part of finding self truth rather that being appeased by social platitudes.

        Most people desire equality (indoctrinated socialism), usually they can’t get higher up the ladder because of intellect, work ethic, beliefs, etc. and so attempt to bring others down to their level. Even then they face difficulty in success so turn to ideology instead. Platitudes that have had success are such as ‘it is easier that a camel…..’ which translates to ‘you have bettered me now but when we are dead I’ll be laughing at you wallowing in flames’. An acceptable equalizer for thousands. The answers to lifes challenges are think, think and think………….the falshoods are to be found in follow, follow, follow.

  3. Tamara February 1, 2017 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    This came across my inbox yesterday, perhaps it will be helpful to others too:

    If you’ve suffered a great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief and outrage and sadness and loss and pain. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our hearts. It honors the grief and it honors the betrayal. And in its own time, it ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.—Gina Sharpe, “The Power of Forgiveness

    • Tamara February 1, 2017 at 2:01 pm Reply

      And I just realized it links to an article, which I have not read but will do so now LOL.

      • Tamara February 1, 2017 at 2:06 pm Reply

        Ugh and you have to be a subscriber to read it. Sorry about that. 🙁

  4. Tommy H January 31, 2017 at 7:37 am - Reply

    Very well put, Life-J.

  5. John H January 29, 2017 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    After reading this I was sort of scratching my head and wondering if I hadn’t stumbled on one of those AA Grapevine issues about the so-called “spiritual” life.

    I guess I’m showing my limitations but this all looks like warmed over Christianity to me with Jesus strangely absent. Personally I don’t do forgiveness but if you are going there why not get it from the source.

    I could direct your attention to the following:

    Matthew 18: 21-22, 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, Matthew 5:23-24, Luke 6:37, John 8:7, Acts 7:59-60 (particularly love this one where the guy forgives people while they are stoning him) and the granddaddy of them all Luke 23:33-34

    Please excuse my bible references but if there is going to be an honest discussion here we need to call this what it is.

    http://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-5/html/container.html#xpc=sf-gdn-exp-2&p=http%3A//ipost.christianpost.com

    RECOMMENDED FOR YOU
    Afghan Convert to Christianity to be Executed within Days9 Most Popular End Times Verses from the Bible9 Most Popular End Times Verses from the BibleHis Grace: Archbishop Veron AsheCP Meets Rachel Chan

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 2:58 pm Reply

      John- I will have to disagree with you on this one.  Although those of us in the western world may associate forgiveness with religion and with Christianity in particular, I explicitly did not do so.  By and large, the New Testament links our forgiveness of others with God’s forgiveness of us.  I did not do this and rather suggested that forgiveness is most clearly motivated by self-care.  This is to say that to forgive others benefits ourselves.  Whether one might also call forgiveness a “spiritual” virtue may depend on one’s definition of spiritual.  Whether it is or is not, forgiveness is a smart virtue, even though one that is not always easy to practice.

      This could lead us into a discussion of selfish vs unselfish actions.  This is a false dichotomy.  All human actions are selfish in that we choose them because they bring us satisfaction, enact our moral principles, or accomplish our valued goals.  Mother Theresa, for example, lived her life as she did for all of the above reasons.  This does not mean she was not admirable, depending on your point of view. But the real distinction is between smart selfishness and stupid selfishness. Practicing forgiveness is practicing smart selfishness.

       

      • RonB January 30, 2017 at 7:03 pm Reply

        That, Galen T, is a good post and reality. The problem is, though, that few people are able so grasp this message. It’s as simple as giving a gift. A double win because although the recipient gains enjoyment, the giver has a far greater joy.

    • life-j January 30, 2017 at 10:33 am Reply

      Glad you had fun with it, John

      You did read it, right?

      • John H January 30, 2017 at 8:20 pm Reply

        Yes sir I did indeed read it and it looked, and looks, just like what I described. Perhaps I did miss the point and am “constitutionally incapable”‘of grasping it.

        Anyway, it got me to get down my most excellent edition of the King James Bible (American Bible Siciety English Reference Bibke of the 1611 original) which

        • John H January 30, 2017 at 8:23 pm Reply

          I still revere as literature.

        • John H January 30, 2017 at 8:21 pm Reply

          I still revere as literature. Great reading.

      • Doris A January 30, 2017 at 2:22 pm Reply

        Life J.  I enjoyed your comments

         

  6. Gerald January 29, 2017 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Galen, for clearly explaining that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the offender. Instead, I make peace with the harm done to me so that I can get back to enjoying my life.

    The kind of forgiveness I’ve heard over the years in the meetings sounds too much like the kind of forgiveness I learned about from the old home religion.

    It also sounds like the kind of forgiveness practice by people who could be in deep denial about how they’ve been harmed.

    And the inventory process certainly is tailored to the bullies, for example, the lifetime cheats & liars and otherwise users & abusers of other people.

    But that’s not me.

    And that prayer of St. Francis, which is suggested in the 12&12 as the kind of attitude that we could take toward life (should take?), well, a Catholic friend of mine told me that Ol’ St. Francis, in his former life, had been a real jerk. Thus, the prayer of St. Francis was just the kind of Attitude Adjustment that Ol’ St. Francis needed, but my Catholic friend, like me, had never been that kind of boorish, pushing, grabbing, bullying, lying, cheating, user & abuser of other people. He said, from his Catholic perspective – he’s not a 12-step member – he said that this kind of prayer can be harmful to people (!)

    My friend said, “No way! It’s much better to receive, and that kind of forgiveness is just stupid” 🙂

    So that was some really good AA advice from someone, an old friend of mine, someone entirely outside of the 12-step world of recovery.

    And then there’s that Voltaire thing that I’ve heard too much of in the meetings, “That all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds …” Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m no literature buff. That was like the only time I was paying attention in French literature class, the only quote I’ve hung on to over the years 🙂 and precisely because Ol’ Voltaire, speaking from the grave, was speaking to something I had recently become aware of in the meetings, and again, it’s an attitude from the old home religion: You know, that God orders this world from the most important things all the way down to the least important things and, that makes me wanna puke 🙂 and that if I, as a sober AA member, am losing myself to fear, worry, anger – like a total lack of forgiveness & acceptance of my present life circumstances 🙂 then 1) I obviously lack faith in God’s ordering of this universe and 2) I need to follow Ol’ Dr. Paul’s advice (used to be page 449 I think) to let acceptance be the answer to all my problems …

    Whut?

    Well, what if 1) I don’t believe in the god of the old home religion, and 2) I don’t want to follow your personal, Dr. Paul-inspired program but instead I want to follow THE AA program … You know, I want to follow that Serenity Prayer, you know, a program of change, not just of acceptance.

    You know, I don’t have a problem with the God talk, OK? At age ten, I figured out that God was just Santa Claus for grown ups, and I made peace with that, i.e. I forgave them all, all these people that believed in God. I forgave AND I was reconciled to that reality. I don’t have a problem negotiating the God talk linguistically, culturally, metaphorically, etc., just no problem. But bringing notions of forgiveness from the old home religion into the AA program just makes me wanna puke.

    Because, like my Catholic friend believed, too, it can be harmful. It can kill people in AA.

    … You know, the AA BB was written BY newcomers and FOR newcomers. Of long term recovery, they knew nothing. They were only guessing at a lifetime of “happy, joyous, & free.” I choose to believe that they guessed right 🙂

    The authors of the BB knew almost nothing about family dysfunction. My personal experience recovering from the effects of childhood trauma, abuse, & neglect is such that I suggest, and I say this in AA meetings, just skipping over those BB chapters To Wives and The Family Afterward. The authors of the BB just didn’t know that they didn’t know. I suggest ACA. They have a BRB nowadays (the Big Red Book). I love how they call themselves “advanced recovery” and “Stage Three recovery” over “starter recovery” or “Stage One recovery” like programs like AA 🙂 Hey, if you ever hear in an AA meeting that there’s no such thing as “advanced recovery,” you just tell them, yes there is … and it just might scare the s–t outta ya, and that’s why won’t you look at it. At least that was my experience once 🙂

    And the authors of the BB knew nothing about the mental illness of depression. You know, Bill W. was STILL depressed at the time of the writing of the 12&12, and he wouldn’t find a solution to his depression until 1960 in the Vitamin B3 cure, a NUTRITIONAL approach to curing depression, not a spiritual approach or the “moral psychology” of the AA program.

    And upon learning of Bill W.’s nutritional cure for his depression, I finally related him, finally, I who am not the bully type, grabbing, cheating, lying, boastful type. Me, too, I ultimately found a cure for my depression & anxiety in a different nutritional approach, and I haven’t spent a moment depressed or anxious in eight years, not a moment.

    Hey, don’t let anybody box you in to the first 164 pages of the AA BB, OK? Whether you write your own additional steps like 9a & 9b or whether you find answers in ACA or professional therapy or somewhere else, there really, really are much better answers to the dilemma of forgiveness than the churchy-type & wishful thinking-type of suggestions found not just in the various AA fellowships out there but also in the AA program itself.

    Thanks!

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:15 pm Reply

      Gerald- I am not an expert on the life of St. Francis, but the prayer associated with his name was not written by him.  Parts of it echo sentiments expressed by one of his associates, Blessed Giles of Assisi.  The prayer in close to its present form made its first appearance in an obscure French publication in 1912.  In any case, as prayers go, it is not my favorite.  It is too pious and it falsely bifurcates the spiritual life into either giving or receiving.

      I agree that answers to our human predicaments can be found outside AA literature.  I have heard of Recovery 2.0 (google Tommy Rosen) but didn’t know that there is an even higher level available-Stage Three Recovery.  The mere thought of it makes me nervous.  I think I will stay in the starter division until I am more confident that I have evolved into a spiritual giant.

  7. Peter T. January 29, 2017 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Galen, thanks for this excellent essay and all your service to this site.  This will serve as a great recovery resource for people of all beliefs.

    I need to keep things very simple for myself… the 11th promise has manifested itself for me as “I no longer overcomplicate situations which are not inherently baffling.”  In so many aspects of my growth, that simply means for whatever it is that’s disturbing me, to not take it so personally.  We are a grandiose lot, and I can see that in my defective tendencies.  I’ve been able to let go of many resentments by understanding that people didn’t set out to hurt me, they were just hurtful or inconsiderate, as I have been on “my side of the street.”

    I’m not a big making “classic” amends person, as laid out in the 1939 book; words mean little in the wake of hurtful actions.  Continued quiet, dignified actions on my part is the best thing I can do around others who were on my list.

    Angry and sober:  I deal with a few old-timers who are bitter and sometimes toxic, while prattling on about their relationship with God and preaching about how the rest of us aren’t doing it right.  I don’t “pray” for them because that just lets them have more rent-free time in my head.  Along your sponsor’s recommendations, I’ve stopped obsessing about how they may be alienating the newcomer because there’s very little I can do about their behaviour.  I can only calmly offer a different example of what sobriety can look like.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:19 pm Reply

      Thanks, Peter.  What you say about not taking things too personally resonates with me.  It also reminds me of that Buddhist notion of dependent origination.  When we get to know even a person who has exhibited personal malice toward us, the origins of this malice usually go way back in a person’s life and have little to nothing to do with who we are.

  8. Erich S January 29, 2017 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    Thank you Galen for another fine article. This one, just as your earlier articles, is going to be one that I come back to often.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:20 pm Reply

      Thanks, Erich.

  9. life-j January 29, 2017 at 11:13 am - Reply

    And one morething:

    I think this may be the first article seen on both our websites that focuses only on an important aspect of recovery in such a way as to be entirely useful to our whole membership, in that it does not anywhere get into what we’re otherwise here for much of the time – our problematic relationship with the religiosity of the program.

    I think this is a milestone. Personally I’m nowhere near through the woods when it comes to my resentments over religion both in my upbringing and the program, but it is really great to see when someone else is able to contribute something which transcends that issue and is of genuine help to the whole fellowship.

  10. life-j January 29, 2017 at 11:07 am - Reply

    Galen, thanks. This is unusually well put together. I have been reflecting on this lack of focus on forgiveness in the 8/9 steps for quite some time.

    When Bill Wilson was 3 years sober he, like most of us 3 years sober, knew everything, and absolutely had to sit down and write a book about it. I guess for 3 years sober he did pretty well, but a lot went amiss. One big issue is that it focused entirely on the experience of those male, high powered type A personalities from high powered jobs, wealthy circumstances or wealthy backgrounds that they drew their early membership, and who by their powerful circumstances and their self-happy broadcast oftheir power had perhaps much greater options to do harm than they were exposed to hurt themselves. This to great detriment for all those who  mostly found themselves on the receiving end of harm throughout both their upbringing and their drinking careers, and who thus had muchmore to potentially forgive than to make amends for.

    I consider myself to belong to the second category, which is why I got to reflect on it in the first place.

    Also I would think, though exceptions will undoubtedly abound, that women would typically find themselves in the second category more so than men, and this was a program made for men, they didn’t even want the women in there to begin with.

    Anyway, a big topic for me, and one that well demonstrates one of the more glaring shortcomings of the big book, and the program in general.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:24 pm Reply

      life-j- That is a good insight into why there is more emphasis in the BB on making amends than on forgiving others.  And I had not thought about your point concerning women, but it is true that many come into recovery having been wronged and damaged by males in their life.

  11. Pat N. January 29, 2017 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Many, many thanks, Galen. It’s the best summary of forgiveness in recovery that I’ve seen, and I will copy it out for myself and refer others to it.

    I struggle daily with feelings of fear, rage, and perplexity over current political events, for instance, and I know it detracts from my happiness and doesn’t solve anything. I need to work on letting go of my “righteous indignation”, accepting reality, finding practical ways to change things, and staying sober. I also have deep resentments toward the church of my youth, whose teachings had a lot to do with the collapse of my first marriage. I need to let go of the most virulent parts of those resentments, and forgive my memories of individuals involved, if I intend to keep growing.

    99% of the time, I’m happy and grateful for the life sobriety in AA has given me. I need to work on the log in my eye that keeps me from gaining that last 1%. This article definitely helps, and deserves wide circulation.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:31 pm Reply

      Pat- I also have struggled with the present political environment.  For a time after the election I was so angry that my feelings were leaking out into relationships with people in no way tied to the situation distressing me.   I had to pull back, take a few deep breaths, and reorient myself.  It has helped me to take a break from Facebook, leave the TV news to those better equipped to handle it, and identify positive actions I can take.

  12. Anne J. January 29, 2017 at 8:45 am - Reply

    It has been my experience that some think that forgiveness means bringing that person back into one’s life.  I was finally able to forgive my father 20 years ago for abuse but he does not acknowledge any fault to this day and I am now a senior citizen. Thank you for saying forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. There are religious people that have tried to shame me on this and thank goodness I had a therapist who assured me that I need not bring him into my life. So now I share this point and hopefully it brings some relief to those newer to recovery.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 4:26 pm Reply

      Thank you for this comment, Anne.  I have never had to forgive a person for the kind of abuse you speak of.  I have forgiven people with whom I did not want speak again.  I felt angry in reading about religious people trying to shame you into reconciling with your father.  I don’t think that anybody can make this sort of decision except the person who has been harmed.  Nor do I think that any moral superiority, much less spiritual superiority, attaches to one path more than the other.  Sometimes the most spiritual decisions I have made are ones that acknowledged my own limitations without feeling guilty over them.

  13. Thomas B. January 29, 2017 at 8:00 am - Reply

    An excellent essay, well reasoned, researched and written from your actual experience of forgiveness — thanks so much, Galen. I especially grok your Steps 9a. and 9b !~!~!

    As a Vietnam Veteran, I’ve written an essay on the need for forgiveness in the healing of veterans with PTSD, which likewise was based on my personal experience — I had to work and experience three cohorts of forgiveness: 1. First, I had to forgive myself for the harmful actions I committed, 2. Second, I had to forgive the “enemy” for the harm they did to me and others I served with in Vietnam, and 3. I had to forgive the USA, the government, the military, our politics, our culture which necessitated sending me to war — this is an ongoing, never-ending process, since we continue to wage war throughout the planet. Just this morning is a report of the first American casualties of the first operation ordered by President Trump in Yemen.

    Forgiveness is not easy, the best I can do sometimes is “act as if” through gritted teeth, making the decision to “be” forgiving despite what I think and feel.

    Just like your addition of Steps 9a. and 9b., perhaps our code on page 84 if the Big Book should be expanded to “love, tolerance and forgiveness.”

    Thanks again, Jan, for your inspired and most appropriate artwork.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:43 pm Reply

      Thank you, Thomas.  I was the right age for the Vietnam draft and escaped via pure luck–a high lottery number.  I still remember it–256. My relief at the time was tempered by knowing that there were others who had drawn an 8 or a 12.  I have several friends who served in Vietnam and came back with PTSD.  Their symptoms have never gone away completely and one still struggles with drink 40 years later.  I can only distantly imagine what it was like to fight in Vietnam and the challenges it would present to forgiving.  But I do recognize the teeth gritting.  I am an agnostic, but I do sometimes pray, most often when I persistently want to throttle somebody.  I pray for the other person and I pray for myself.  I have not rationally worked out this seeming contradiction, but the praying helps me with forgiving.  I suppose I figure that I am an epistemological agnostic while reserving the right to believe in something on occasion. But please don’t debate me on this.

       

  14. Joe C January 29, 2017 at 7:57 am - Reply

    This is an example of “we know only a little… More will be revealed. An AA Catholic in AA who was at one time a priest, one time a Betty Ford director of Spiritual Care and is now a bereavement counsellor, reminds me that the word “grief” (and trauma) are not mentioned in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Historically, it’s easy to understand the “look after our side of the street only” mentality of the depression years in the USA. But what do we know now?

    No doubt, unresolved trauma and loss are leading causes of 12-Step failure or relapse. I learned more about this in more modern fellowships such as Adult Children of Alcoholics which invited a look at how we’ve been neglected or abused and what we can do about it. Gaylen, what a great essay this is about your journey. I’ve gleaned some gems that I will surely borrow from. Thank you.

    I don’t know about the rest of you but these seem to be  tumultuous times we live in, politically. I find it easy to be consumed at a time when pacing myself is better medicine. This Sunday morning break has proven to be an emotional oasis to help ground me in the last couple of months.

    Thanks again Galen, team-AA-beyond-belief and all of you. As often is the case, I’ll be back to enjoy the input from others here as it’s reasonable that I’ll need another dose of sanity and calm in the hours or days ahead.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 3:52 pm Reply

      Joe,

      A friend of mine just relapse again, largely for the reason you identify–unresolved past trauma.  I was sharing with another friend our bewilderment that even at merely an hours drive from New York City we don’t have therapists out our way who seem prepared to handle trauma work.  A woman I know told me that she has gone to nine therapists without getting the help she needs.  I wonder whether this lamentable situation has less to do with a lack of training or competence than it does with the difficulty all of us have in sitting with people who are in severe emotional pain.

      I am so glad you enjoy AABB. I discovered it relatively recently and have only been involved with it for a little more than half a year, but it has been a blessing (in the secular sense!)

       

       

      • RonB January 30, 2017 at 8:58 pm Reply

        A favorite subject of mine ‘Substance abuse, anxiety and depression’. It is my view that alcoholism is an effect of trauma and that the remedy is naturally by dealing with the underlying trauma. Trauma may be transient or perpetual. A divorce or family bereavement may resolve in time especially with non proffessional help and particularly family care. The perpetual one is far more difficult to help with. Many relate to childhood trauma and in particular lack of maternal love, yet it is always anecdotal and referenced to todays morality and not that existed at the time. My father may have beaten me but most other children in that era sufferred similarily, today we believe we were abused. But, we have no comparison to make in childhood, our life and parents are our only reality, moreover our memories become exaggerated as that big fish we caught grows year by year. My sister created a fictionary childhood on migration to Australia, over time she has come to believe in the fiction as having been reality. We therefore face an almost impossible task in treating the underlying cause of her alcoholism. Then there are those that rebel against socialization, the indoctrination of social rules and ‘norms’, policed by the psychotherapist religion of DSM5, it’s pigeonholing of individuals and intent to get them into the cell of ‘normality’. For this person the cell is a prison and alcohol is a means of escape, albeit temporary. Yet the prisoner wont change society and his trauma cannot be addressed. We therefore look to a solution that changes the mind of the sufferer, be it by mind altering drugs or progressive brainwashing. In either case the loss is self identity and that is the true meaning of insanity.

  15. John S January 29, 2017 at 7:53 am - Reply

    I liked reading this, and I think it’s worth saving and reading again, and I would recommend it to anyone who I may sponsor, or who might be grappling with these issues.

    Based on my personal experience, though, I need to adapt bullet-point one in the section titled “A Few Ideas About How to Forgive.” Rather than praying for the person with whom I am resentful, I instead find understanding of that person. Before I forgive someone, I always take a sort of inventory of the situation, and in so doing, I gain a degree of understanding of that person. I become more aware of their humanity and imperfection, and in some cases, I come to understand their actions through the context of what they are experiencing or have recently experienced in their life.

    I was told to pray for people too, but I don’t think that advice ever helped me. One problem was I never really believed in a God, and it didn’t feel right, and the other problem was that it set up this idea in my head that I did something wrong. That simply wasn’t the case. The person who harmed me was wrong, but through understanding myself and my motives, I can better understand others, and this is what sets me free or allows me to let go of resentment.

    Of course, human beings are capable of the most heinous behavior imaginable, and the harm done to us may defy understanding, and forgiveness may not be possible. I don’t have the experience in having to deal with that sort of thing, and I think that there are probably some issues that we just can’t deal with through the program, and require outside professional help.

    Thank you, Galen, for sharing this with us. I think it’s brilliant. And thank you, Len, for the audio story and Jan for the photography. What a great way to start the day.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 4:02 pm Reply

      John- I like your inventory approach to forgiveness.  In response to an earlier comment I confessed that I do occasionally pray, even though I am an agnostic.  I have no good defense for myself and understand why this doesn’t work for many people.

      I think some acts may be unforgivable.  Since I have led a relatively sheltered life and have not been in many situations where the question of forgiveness could come up, I just don’t know.

      I remember reading after the awful shooting in the church in Charleston SC, that within a couple of days at least a couple relatives of victims announced their forgiveness of the shooter, Dylann Roof.  I am still not sure I can fathom such a quick “turn-around,” so to speak, but who am I to say it is not possible.

  16. Tommy H January 29, 2017 at 7:53 am - Reply

    This was our topic Friday.  Thanks for elaborating.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 4:28 pm Reply

      Tommy- You are welcome.

  17. Bill P. January 29, 2017 at 6:54 am - Reply

    Thanks so much, Galen for an exceptionally fine article on forgiveness. This has been an important issue for me due to the complex and often difficult relationship I had with my parent during her last seven years, leaving me with unhappy memories after her death. I hope that I have been able to forgive her and I have focused on why she behaved as she did- her childhood upbringing from a very difficult mother, her lifelong depression aggravated by the suicide of her first child and her much loved grandchild, her intermittent strokes and growing dementia. I ended up admiring her for her stamina, her courage and have compassion for her sorrows and her suffering. I was not able to be present at her death. I regret that since there was no opportunity for reconciliation.

     

    Thanks again.

    Bill

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 4:10 pm Reply

      Bill- That is an extraordinary story about your mother.  I also am sorry that you could not be present at her death.

      I am interested in working with dying persons to help bring them a sense of forgiveness for and reconciliation with people in their past or in their present lives. Years back I was a counselor for older adults in my county.  It was an outreach program so I drove all over the place seeing people in their homes or wherever it was they were living.  A time or two I was able to help in setting up meetings between a dying person and one or more family members from whom they had been long estranged.  It was astonishing to see the healing that could take place.

  18. RonB January 29, 2017 at 5:55 am - Reply

    I found god, but couldn’t find a higher or greater power, so I had to stop before ending step one. For I am god and I believe in me, self belief is incredibly important. I cannot think of any instance in my life where I have purposely tried to hurt another person unless in self defence or defence of a loved one, and so there are no ammends to make. Niether can I recall any person hurting me with malicious intent, yes I have been hurt but I’m sure the perpetrator had cause. Whether just or not is a matter of personal morality/cultute/tradition. My perspective on the steps is that they are all based upon christian moralities of either the pre Voltaire period of living for self, redemption, less purgatory and the afterlife or the post Voltaire period of social christianity, it’s all about others. Both are to me ideological and have no worth in reality.

    • Galen T. January 30, 2017 at 4:16 pm Reply

      Ron,

      You are right, of course, about the Christian origin of many of the steps.  But I don’t think this invalidates them or makes them irrelevant, even for the non-religious.  I recently led two agnostic-atheist sponsees through the steps and we had no trouble, even with the ones that explicitly mention God.  We translated the term “God” or “higher power” into a workable higher power or even simply “another” power other than the person himself.  This line of attack may be unconventional, but in practice it can work just fine.

       

      • life-j January 30, 2017 at 9:21 pm Reply

        Galen,

        There is something I take issue with the Power, whether it be higher, greater, or outside, not to mention heavenly. I think that’s one of Bill wilsons grand false dichotomies, my will or god’s will. We don’t need the Power, all we need is help from each other, and all the higher/greater whatever power talk needs to be abolished. It is only there to help make a smoother transition from agnosticism to accepting god’s help, sneaking god in the back door. Two heads think better than one. Do the two heads together now become a greater power to the two individual heads?

        I’m not picking on you, I think we probably are mostly in agreement over this, only want to point out that wewill never get past the religious stuff in AA if we don’t get rid of the higher power stuff. And it is absolutely not needed. And making thegroup your higher power – why? Can you pray to it? Does it find you parking spaces or otherwise intervene in your life when you aren’t sitting right there in the group?

        So even if it can be argued that the group is a power greater than yourself, it only amounts to the same trivial understasnding of theworld as that an earthquake is a greater power, so what if an earthquakeis a greater power? Does this tell me anything at all other than that I would only have been a greater power than theearthquake if I had been god himself? And yes, according to bill wilson most drunks come into the program thinking they are greater than god, but that is just vile nonsense designed to manipulate people into getting stuck in his falsedichotomy and accept his line of (non-)reasoning.

      • RonB January 30, 2017 at 7:27 pm Reply

        Galen, yes the steps work. I have said many times that transplanting the brain of a sheep to that of a human will cure alcoholism, I never met a drunken sheep. Take a thinking person and make him into a follower of the minds of others and you curtail individuality and the essence of self. This is the mind of the terrorist who at base is a loving person but who has been impregnated with religious steps that make him a killer. We all have the power to overcome adversity within oursleves, we only touch the surface of such powers but there are those, and I am far from reaching such, that can heal others too. Jesus of Nazareth was one and I have met a few in my life, but Jesus of Nazareth was not the same entity as the man of violence that stormed a church and was crucified, then in bewilderment on the cross asked why he had been forsaken! This is the voice of the good man impregnated with religious beliefs (no doubt step by step) and realizing when dying in agony, his folly.

    • Bill P. January 29, 2017 at 1:47 pm Reply

      Ron: Well, if you’re sober that’s a good thing. I can’t and shouldn’t speak to the rest. Good luck on your sobriety!

       

      Bill.

Leave a Comment