There are many wise and pithy sayings within Twelve Step recovery. One of the most helpful, allegedly first used by an older timer called Submarine Bill from Indiana, is the injunction to “keep your own side of the street swept clean.” In other words, sort yourself and your own behaviour out and don’t be worrying about other people and what they’re up to, even when they’ve done something to hurt you. This makes good sense because apart from anything else, we can’t change other people, so keeping our own side of the street swept clean is living out that part of the Serenity Prayer which asks for “serenity to accept the things we cannot change and courage to change the things we can.”
The words and picture language used by Jesus may be different but he seems to have been making a similar point in the Sermon on the Mount, when he asks why we are concerned with the speck of dust in another person’s eye when we have a log or plank of wood in our own. We need to take the log or plank of wood out of our own eye first, because whilst we see faults in others’ actions, our own wrong behaviour is far more urgently in need of fixing.
These injunctions sound both simple and obvious, but they’re very challenging things to do. It’s far easier to see other people’s problems and errant behaviour, point the finger of blame and ignore our own conduct completely. Blaming others and feeling resentful towards them seems to be our default position so that when someone has hurt us, we retaliate and fight back without ever considering our own behaviour. We may never carry out our plans for revenge but the damage is done as soon as we step into the pointless and unhealthy cycle of resentment and revenge. Revenge may be a useful plot technique in movies and books but in real life it’s a poisonous solution to a problem which we can’t control. It always ends up hurting us.
So, what should we do instead? As I see it, we need to take responsibility for how we think and behave in response to the apparent wrong, handing it over to God, something Jesus repeatedly told us to do. The other person is not our responsibility and we have to entrust them and their conduct to God. Interestingly, the more we concentrate on letting go and letting God, the less fearful we’ll be and the less resentful too. Gradually other people are no longer our business or our problem.
All of that of course supposes that it is we who have been wronged; spending any more time talking about this here buys into the preoccupation we have with what others have done to us, rather than looking at our own conduct. Far more frequent are the wrongs which we do to others and keeping our side of the street swept clean is about reflecting on our behaviour, uncovering the wrongs that we have done– in thought, word and deed. It can be a surprise to find that these are things we do pretty much every day “through negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault,” as the General Confession puts it. This is the log in our own eye, the rubbish on our side of the street which needs dealing with, work which can only be done by us.
This work is the stuff of Steps 8, 9 and 10 within Twelve Step Programmes. These go as follows:
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
This is a reflective process which starts off being a large piece of work as we enter recovery (or turn to Christ). What unacknowledged, undealt with wrongs have we done over the course of our addiction or life? One person I knew repaid everything they had stolen from a former employer. Someone else went to the local hospital with a bunch of flowers to apologise to staff for her frequent troubled drunken admissions. The nurses and doctors were delighted to see her looking so well and said that they assumed her absence was because she had moved away or died! Another friend went to the police station to make amends for his frequent arrests. The puzzled desk sergeant who did not know him, accepted his apology before seeking his advice on how to help a friend with an alcohol problem! Apologies don’t undo the wrong we did but they do unlock healing in ourselves regardless of whether the other person accepts the apology. When they do accept an apology, both the individuals and their relationship can be healed and restored.
Making amends and keeping a short account is a good daily practice. Taking responsibility for our own wrong behaviour and keeping our relationships right is part of the way of Jesus. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount he says that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” As Richard Rohr says, “Jesus liberated us from religion. He taught simple religious practices over major theorizing. The only thoughts Jesus told us to police were our own: our own negative thoughts, our own violent thoughts, our own hateful thoughts – not other people’s thoughts.” In short, we keep our own side of the street swept clean. It’s both that simple and that difficult, but the benefits for ourselves, for others and for our world are immense.