The nice woman pays her bill, right there in my office, placing $200 in cash on my coffee table. She exits. I count the cash. There are not 10 $20 bills. There are 11. I’m holding an extra $20.
I’m astonished by the thought that pops into my head as if you’d switched on television. The thought is alien and unbidden. But it’s there, too late to deny or excuse.
I’m $20 up. And she’ll never know.
Whoa! Where did that come from? What am I thinking? A shadowy chill falls across me. I beeline out the door, across the waiting room and into the parking lot. I call her name, and hand her the bill. “Thank you,” she says. As if I did her a favor.
Wrong. I did myself a favor. And I sit in my office for a few minutes, breathing through the experience. That was weird. I’m surprised by the random eruption of sordid thoughts and sometimes actions in me. What my religion calls my “sin nature.”
It’s there in me. In you, too. In everyone.
I enjoy thinking of myself as a good man. But I’m not good. Yes, I have goodness in me. But that’s not to say I’m good. I have this other, relentless, competing identity, too. A nature entitled, hedonistic, self-preserving, frequently aggrandized, capable of blithe selfishness and disturbing disregard.
That’s why, I’m sure, my father-figure, Rex, would so often say to me, “Character is what you have when no one is watching. When no one would ever know.”
Previously I told you the story of a television producer contacting me about a new docudrama about people leading double lives. I talked about how double lives tax our soul. Yet, I also observed the danger of reckless, undiscerning confession. Apparently the discussion has begun a ricochet in my mind. I’m still pondering the implications.
More than once in this space have I admired the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous — The Twelve Steps. Alcoholics come to admit they are “powerless over alcohol,” the first step but, really, that’s pretty much the end of The Twelve Steps’ focus on drinking. The rest of the journey is about developing a core spirituality. AA is like “spirituality for dummies,” and I mean that as a high compliment.
I’m saying that, even if you’re not an alcoholic, most people would do well to work some version of the steps.
When I think of my “sin nature,” I think of how AA’s 12 Steps is dominated by Steps Four through Ten. This is the real guts of it. The rigor and work of it. Of any authentic spiritual path.
Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Translation? I told myself the truth about me. The unvarnished, unedited, undefended, unexplained unjustified, often unlovely TRUTH. We name it. We own it. This is freedom. Truth begets choices.
Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Now it’s not a secret. Now it’s in the light. It is always an honor when someone asks if I’ll be the “other human being.”
Step Six: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Entirely ready. Yikes. The reason I recognize “sin nature” as sin nature is because that part of my identity hangs on for dear life to ideas and behaviors that are so obviously and measurably destructive and depleting to happiness. Mine and others.
Step Seven: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
I cannot, by the mere power of my own will, decide, in every case, to stop desiring what is hurting me and others. This is the immutable reality of the human condition.
Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Ah, the list. Are you willing? I notice that, for some people on my list, just thinking about them makes me start to explain and justify my behavior. My “sin nature” believes deeply that my anger at these people is the only credential I require.
Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
This is the deep wisdom of The Twelve Steps. I’ve told myself, God and another human being the truth. Step Nine demands we give pause, that we practice a sober discernment before we go running off at the mouth to everyone.
Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
And so on, now as a way of life. A good life.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.