Making amends is one of the things that terrifies newcomers to AA. I was fortunate. I didn’t have a great many amends to make. I didn’t need to go to jail (sometimes making amends involves confessing to crimes). I didn’t need to pay huge sums of money. I didn’t need to talk to the parents of anyone I’d killed. I know people who’ve done all these things. It’s difficult.
My amends fell into a few basic categories. Acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Acceptance of consequences. And leaving people alone. There’s a reason making amends is step 9. We’re not ready right when we get sober. And people are not ready for us. Frequently, when we first get sober, we want to run right out and fix all our relationships, and rectify all our wrongdoing. But we can’t.
By waiting until step 9, we prepare ourselves, but we also let time pass. The passage of time is hugely important in making amends. We can show up the next day and say: “I’m sober now, for a whole day, and I promise I’ll never do anything like that again!” It’s bullshit and everyone but us knows it. Letting time go by, and showing up after six months or a year and saying: “I’ve had a lot of time to consider how I harmed you. I haven’t had a drink in half a year,” will be far more meaningful.
When we’re ready, and when enough time has passed for those we’ve harmed to be ready to hear it, then we can start to address how we’ve done wrong in the lives of others. I think that amends and apology get conflated in ways that are not useful. An apology, by itself, is very rarely an amends. And though most will, not every amends needs an apology. Sometimes, you just have to write a check.
Because, at its heart, the amends is about the person who did the wrong, not the person who had the wrong done to them. We make amends so that we can go on with our lives, free from debt and regret and resentment, able to move forward and respect ourselves. As long as our goal is forgiveness, we’re not ready to make amends. If our goal is to retain or regain something from our past, we’re not ready to make amends. We’re ready when we’re ready to accept the consequences of what we did, make what restitution is possible, and change our behavior. Nothing else is within our control.
Circumstances are also often such that we were harmed by a person whom we have also done harm to. In this situation, we still need to make amends to them. And when we do, we can’t be expecting them to also make amends to us. We can’t offer our amends conditionally upon their acceptance of some blame. We make amends for how we’ve harmed them, and do not mention or discuss how they’ve harmed us. That may come another time. It may not.
When we make amends, we explain how we harmed the person. We accept the consequences of that harm. We lay out how we’ll make it right, if we can. We describe how our future behavior will change, so as to ensure that this sort of harm will not happen again. We apologize. Usually, this results in forgiveness. Sometimes not. But the amends do not hinge on forgiveness. Some people are not interested in forgiving us. Some people will never want anything to do with us again. Some people will want revenge. We can’t control their reactions.
Nor are we hostage to them. If we’ve honestly and forthrightly attempted to rectify a situation, without excuse or condition, and our amends is not accepted, so be it. Everyone has the right to say: “I do not forgive you.” Or the right to say: “I will not rehire you.” Some wounds are too deep. And some people are not forgiving. We accept that. Sometimes, the harm we’ve done causes irrevocable rifts. We go on to live separate lives. But we do not need to grovel or complete trials trying to earn forgiveness. If our amends are sincere and not accepted, we can move forward in our lives without regret.
The key for me, the internal litmus which tells me if I am ready, is resentment. If a person has harmed me, and I also owe them amends, am I resentful about having to make mine while they still also owe amends to me? Then I’m not ready. Am I angry about what I’ve lost, and blame someone other than myself for it? Then I’m not ready. Will I be offended or insulted if my amends are not accepted and forgiveness granted? Then I’m not ready.
But when I see my own fault, and when my own culpability in harm is objectionable to me beyond any resentment, I am ready to address my wrongdoing. When my knowledge of my own error interferes with my serenity, my peace of mind, I am ready. When the harm I’ve done others pains me not because of how it affects me, but because of how it affect them, then I am ready. Sometimes this is immediate. Sometimes, it takes a long time. But it happens.
Making amends is about setting right my wrongs. I do it so that I can live with myself. I do it so that I can stand in this world and feel that I am a positive for others. So that my resentments don’t intoxicate me. So that my debts, karmic or financial, are clear. I accept my consequences so that I may transcend my own bad behavior. So that I can move forward and live soberly, and be of value to others. Not so that I may be forgiven. Not so that I may regain status or position or material. Only so that my hands are free from debt. So that my heart is free from shame.
Because shame and debt and resentment lead me directly to despair, and depression, and inevitably to alcohol.