Question: ‘The review suggests that we should not drift into morbid reflection, etc., but the review has no room for congratulating yourself. It is just a ‘where I did go wrong?’ review. There’s no ‘I was proud of myself because’ section. So, if I have had a trouble-free day, I have to scan the day hard to find a problem; that can’t be good for a person, right?’
The review looks as though it is purely negative. However, If I ask myself the question: ‘where was I resentful?’, and the answer is, ‘I wasn’t’, then that is a good thing. Or even if there were just a few moments of disturbance but otherwise the day was resentment-free, again, that is a good thing. Resentment or lack of it is a good metric for mental state. The answer therefore lies somewhere on the scale from ‘wholly good’ to ‘wholly bad’. In the same way that a doctor’s examination is looking out, listening out, and feeling for abnormalities and be brief and dull when the patient is well, a review following a good day will end up being almost blank, whilst a review following a bad day will have a lot more content.
If you go down the inventory and you don’t come up with anything major, then you’ve got a wholly positive outcome. This is a cause for joy and gratitude.
The injunction against morbid reflection is an injunction precisely against insisting on scanning the day with a desperate desire to find something wrong. If the day was trouble-free, stop there.
The underlying purpose of the review is to find what went wrong so that we can make tomorrow better (and happier). To refrain from doing it on grounds that it makes one feel bad would effectively be to say, ‘I would rather keep making the same mistakes. I don’t want to be happier than I am.’ The point is to find what is wrong so that we can be even more effective and happy the next day. Finding fault, as it were, is not aimed at bringing us down but lifting us higher.
Lots of things are like this. When you have your car MOTd, the mechanics don’t spare you their findings in case you’ll be upset. You’re glad for everything they spot, and you certainly don’t take anything personally. Similarly a doctor’s examination.
If a person feels attacked by doing the inventory, there’s a misunderstanding. The inventory is not an index of your worth; it is not there to ask ‘am I a good person?’ The desire to congratulate oneself suggests that there is a deficit the individual wants to make up for through good deeds. Reading between the lines, the individual seems to be taking it badly if he finds something wrong.
Never forget: we are individually of infinite worth because we exist. Nothing we do can add to that; nothing we do can detract from that. Whether or not we think and act right is an entirely separate question (and comes under the heading of ‘integrity’ rather than ‘worth’). If one needs worth to be reinforced, that’s fine, but go straight to God for that; do not seek to discern worth in the inventory, or you’ll be kicked in the teeth whenever you do something wrong. Anything one tries to get a sense of worth from other than being a child of God will work when it works but destroy you when it doesn’t. The moral or spiritual realm is the domain in which this is most amplified. Self-congratulation for behaving well is a set-up for despondency when we behave badly.
It has to be recalled that what we’re finding, when we find something wrong, are signs of spiritual sickness (or ignorance, which really comes under the same heading). If we find something wrong, it is because we did not know what God’s will for us was or because we knew but did not have the power to carry it out. To find something wrong is not, therefore, to find something wrong with us but to determine that we were in a state of ignorance or powerlessness, in which case the answer is more knowledge or power.
One should never beat oneself up for something one finds. The Step Eleven review is performed in God’s presence, and therefore with knowledge of God’s care. Finding something bad in a review may be a cause for sorrow for not for self-flagellation: by definition we were driven. Finding something good, however, should absolutely be a cause for celebration (and the absence of bad is good). The celebration is not self-congratulation, however, because we were not the cause of it. We did not develop the moral law we have abided by. We did not conjure the knowledge of God’s will for us: it was given; we did not conjure the strength to do the right thing: it, too, was given. Finding that the day was good is a cause for gratitude that the programme works or, at a higher level, seeking God’s will works, because, on performing a review in His presence, we discover that we have been given all the strength and direction we need.
Incidentally, if we have behaved morally (which is invariably in our ultimate best interests), it would be odd to seek a medal for doing so, as the fact the action in question is right and that right action serves us as well as anyone else should be enough. People outside AA often find it odd that people in AA do congratulate themselves for doing what healthy people do automatically.
When you read news reports of people who have acted heroically, the so-called hero will often reject praise, saying, ‘I did it automatically; I did it because it was right; I didn’t think about it.’ I think that reflects a real spiritual truth.
A further point is purely theological: good and bad are not warring sides, in my view, with good sometimes winning and bad sometimes winning. Bad can exist only in the context of good. Faults in computer programs can exist only if there is a computer program; they have no independent existence. It is the same morally: we are essentially in a benign universe, but one with flaws—sometimes grave ones. The job is to eliminate the flaws. The design of the inventory (probably intuitively) mirrors this moral design of the universe.
There is a place for the recognition that God is working wonders in our lives, which is why the review cannot be seen in isolation. It is one part of a big package. The review is the bit where, in God’s presence and in God’s care, we dare look at what went wrong. Casting the mind back to Step Three, our whole lives are demonstrations to others of what is going well: when we share in meetings or with newcomers, that is the point at which we catalogue the good, not to bolster ourselves (which is a soul-souring activity) but to give hope to others.
Finally, it has to be remembered that, if our self-image needs bolstering, it should never be done with reference to achievement, whether practical or moral. Rather, remember this: we are innocent and we are perfect, as are others; our thinking and consequently behaviour may need adjusting, but we are not our thinking or behaviour, and identifying with either will cement them in place because we will wish to defend them. We are no more our thinking than the words written on a Word document on the screen of the computer are the computer or say something about the worth of the computer.
Approach the review with the attitude that you are loved by God because you are innocent and perfect, and the process becomes a wholly positive one.