Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Making Amends

Watching Twelve Years a Slave and writing my last post have really caused me to think about how I live my life, and how I might be able to live it better in regards to others.  So over the last week or so, I've been reviewing the past few years of my life and taking stock of how I could have acted differently, better, more appropriately, more compassionately, and who I might have harmed in some way along the way because my actions, or inaction, didn't really serve my highest good.

I have to say that I was fairly pleased with what I found, although I did find a couple of instances where I hadn't done my best, and in fact, may have caused harm, or at least discomfort to someone. Nothing that I discovered was anything really awful, but, still, I knew, in considering the situations (and one in particular) that I wanted to be accountable and take responsibility.  I decided to make amends. 

Making amends (compensation for a loss or injury) is a big part of the recovery process in all of the 12 step programs.  Step 8 requires the person working the steps to make a list of all persons she/he harmed and to become willing to make amends to them all.  Step 9 requires that direct amends be made to each person wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others. In other words, it's not acceptable to tell a third party to offer the apology to the injured party for someone else.  The person working the steps has to make the amends personally, directly.  They're not easy steps to take, because in doing so, the person making amends has to allow himself/herself to be vulnerable, and has no control over how his/her actions will be received.

During my trip to Alaska in 2012, I met a lot of truly good people. One was a woman who had a profound effect on me (and whose identity I will keep private just to protect her privacy), and who I had promised to keep in touch with after I said my goodbyes and continued on my journey.

For whatever reason, I never did.  At first I was just too caught up in the excitement of being on the road, exploring new places and being on my own in such a novel way.  Later, when I'd think about calling, it always seemed to be the wrong time: I was too tired, it was during her work day, etc. There was always some reason (excuse!).  And then, as more time went by, as the trip ended and I was back at home, I felt guilty and embarrassed that I'd waited so long, and that made it even harder to pick up the phone.

But I never forgot her, and certainly couldn't forget that I hadn't kept in touch.  Her name would come to mind at the strangest times, and I'd find myself wondering what she was doing, how she was doing, and, yes, probably most often, wondering what she was thinking about me! (I imagined they weren't very good thoughts if she was thinking about me at all.)

So last week I decided to right the wrong, and I sent her an email apologizing for not keeping in touch, asking her to let me know how she was doing and what she was up to, and even acknowledging that I'd understand if she didn't want to connect with me after all this time. I actually had a hard knot in my stomach when I hit the send button. But at least I did it.

Several days went by without a reply, and the self-talk in my head wasn't positive at all.  I was convinced that she wasn't going to respond, and I didn't feel good about it.  On Friday, as I was driving to Atlanta to do a healing circle, I heard that little voice in my head that I've come to recognize oh so well, say, "Really, after all this time, do you think a little email was enough?  You need to make a direct effort. You need to call."

It was one thing to send an email. A phone call was a completely different ballgame, and I could feel the unease in my gut just from thinking about it.  But I also knew it was the right thing to do.  So a short time later I stopped for lunch, and before I got out of the car, I made the call.  I got voice mail and my ego went to work!  "She doesn't want to talk to you. She's got caller ID. She knows who's calling and she's not going to answer."  Maybe not, I thought, but I could at least try, so when her greeting ended, I left a message with a very heartfelt and sincere apology. I really was sorry, and I did want to renew our connection.  I was sorry I had lost it to begin with.

I was busy over the weekend, but I was also very aware that she didn't return my call.  I knew when I sent the email that I didn't have any control over whether or not she responded, and I knew that was true of the voice mail message as well.  I had done what I could do to make amends.  It was time to let it go.

Making amends isn't easy, even when it's something as simple as just apologizing for not having followed through with my promise to stay connected.  My ego was hard at work with negative self-talk and my emotions were quick to respond to the words it was speaking.  And when the offense is something even more weighted, it goes without saying that the task of being accountable, of taking responsibility and making things right, is equally weighted in difficulty. I know because I've been there.

And having been there, I can honestly say that the weight and cost of carrying around that unfinished business is far greater than the temporary discomfort of making amends. The difficulty is, we don't realize that's the case until after we have the courage to own up. Until we do, that old stuff just sits in our guts, and in the buried recesses of our hearts and minds, festering, poking its way into our conscious awareness whenever it has the opportunity to do so.

It takes a lot of effort to keep it buried, a lot of energy to keep pushing it away, to keep reburying it each time it resurfaces.  That's energy we could be using for other things, things that could help us move forward. (Not to mention the good it could be doing for the injured person when we own our screw-up!) That old stuff, that old unfinished business, is just helping us to stay stuck.  And if we don't own up, there's no way that old stuff will heal. When we take responsibility for our actions and do our best to make things right, there's always the possibility we'll be forgiven, which makes room for even better things to come.  And even if we aren't forgiven, even if the other person doesn't respond at all, taking responsibility, holding ourselves accountable, lightens the load that we carry in immeasurable and unimaginable ways, and it frees our energy to take us higher, further, and to allow us to do more good in other ways.

It's been four days since I placed that call, and I knew I'd be okay even if I didn't hear back.  I can already feel a lightness in my gut and in my heart simply from having taken action.  And that negative self-talk is gone. The results are well worth the discomfort I felt when I sent the email and made the call.

Figuring it was all behind me, I decided to check my email one last time before I started this post, just to make sure there were no last minute responses for tomorrow night's workshop.  When I opened my inbox, there it was: her response!  She thanked me for the voice mail, especially because she hadn't noticed my email, and assured me she wasn't angry, never had been.  She wrote that she was delighted to hear from me, and had so much to share with me! She was overloaded with work but was on vacation next week and hoped to get in touch then when she had more time, so we could catch up. 

For eighteen months I've been carrying this around with me, spending my energy worrying, hearing all that negative self-talk.  I wish I'd had the courage to send that email and make that call sooner.  It sure would have saved me a lot of unnecessary grief, and would have given me the extra benefit of having this like-minded soul as a friend and resource as I moved to Nashville and started this next part of my journey.

Isn't it interesting how much energy we spend resisting what we know we need to do to make things right, and how much power we lose, simply because we're afraid to take responsibility, to be accountable, to make amends?

I'm going to keep a closer eye on myself from now on, and when I make a mess of things (and I will, I'm human), I'm going to make every effort humanly possible to make amends sooner rather than later.  I just don't want to waste energy anymore, mine or the other person's, when I have the power, and the responsibility, to fix them.