A Day of Reckoning

How wonderful it is to have someone beg forgiveness. A dear friend of mine is a recovering alcoholic working the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. After a searching and fearless moral inventory (Step 4), he came to me, and others, to make amends (Step 9). This is where the repentant alcoholic apologizes for his or her wrongdoings. Where possible and appropriate, he also makes restitution for his dastardly deeds.

I was genuinely pleased to hear my friend’s apology, happy that he was at least nine steps down the path of sobriety. But it also felt good to have someone cry for mercy. It was as if the universe were being put right, tidied up so that Truth and Justice could prevail. My psyche was drunk on life that day. But like all buzzes, it was a fleeting high. That night my own conscience began to sober up and speak.

My conscience first reminded me that one need not be an addict to hurt people. It also politely, but firmly, asked for the record to reflect that I had my own lengthy list of wrongdoings. As an occasionally obedient Catholic, I had confessed most of them, but I had not sought forgiveness from those I hurt. My conscience concluded its remarks by suggesting that I, too, brave Steps 4 and 9.

Lying in bed that night, I toyed with taking my own moral inventory and making amends. I lifted the window on my past by a crack. (I was not quite ready to be fearless and open the window entirely, afraid the gust from more recent and worse behavior would be strong enough to knock me out of bed.)

Two deeds from long ago slid through the tiny gap. Neither was the kind of act for which a benevolent god would cast one into hell (at least I hope not). But these were truly bad deeds. I performed them willfully and knowingly.

As a 13-year-old I worked a booth at a church’s annual summer festival, its biggest fund-raiser of the year. I sold ice cream and candy for several hours, while secretly stuffing my pants pockets full of patrons’ quarters. Later, I spent the loot on some spins of the Tilt-O-Whirl and the wheels of chance.

Making amends would be as easy as dropping the money in the church’s collection basket some Sunday, my conscience noted. But I had no idea how much I stole, I protested. My conscience, always wanting to be helpful, suggested that I could stuff my pockets with quarters, total up the sum and then adjust for inflation.

Late in high school I fell in love for the first time with a bright, pretty girl who was perfect in every way. I, on the other hand, had trouble managing this new thing called love and expressed my feelings like the amazingly immature 17-year-old I was. My emotional instability led to an on-again, off-again relationship. And I deliberately turned it off just days before her senior prom, stealing from her that rite of passage.

How to make amends for this one? After all, some things are better left alone, as the A.A. model teaches. Trying to rectify some past wrongs would only further complicate matters. I doubt my old flameor her husband, for that matterwould want me to take her dancing. Once again, my conscience eagerly came to the rescue. It suggested that I could make up for this bad deed by anonymously sending money to my old flame’s high school so that a needy student could buy a prom gown.

I have plenty of other sins much more recentand far more grievousthan these. For me to make amends fully would require, among other things, significant amounts of money, sporting equipment and household pets. (Don’t ask.) Whether I actually make amends of this sort, or some other, for my teenage or adult sins is, of course, between me and my higher power. But I began to think about the benefits to society if the A.A. model of confession and restitution were embraced by all.

What if we all agreed to make amends, perhaps on an annual National Day of Reckoning? Certainly it would be one of the best feel-good days of the year, as we each made and received apologies and restitution.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am due, among other things, $375 in cash, one James Taylor Greatest Hits CD and a trip to Las Vegas (again, don’t ask).

On a more practical note, such a day could help boost the economy with the promise of a retail bonanza, if not quite on the scale of Christmas, then at least, say, of Valentine’s Day. Sure, many wrongdoings are not about material things; even if they were, they could not be amended with such. But when they are appropriate, gifts beg louder than words.

More than anything, such a day could pay dramatic spiritual dividends, too, as we pause to remember the one thing that binds us all: our limitations, our shortcomings, our propensity to say and do what we know we should not.

Many of us fall victim now and then to the silly belief that if we were Adam or Eve, we humans wouldn’t have been booted out of paradise to create the mess we madeand continue to makefor ourselves. A National Day of Reckoning could rid us all of that delusion.

And give us all some nifty presents to open.

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