The 12 Step Stoic: Inventory

Acceptance of what is. Self-Examination. Right Thought. Right Action.

The central tenets of 12 Step recovery are similar, if not identical, to the central tenets of Stoicism. In this series of articles, we shall compare the words of some Stoic Masters with those drawn from 12 Step literature.

Step Four. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step Ten. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

“Believe me, it’s better to produce the balance-sheet of your own life than that of the grain market.” —SENECA, ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE, 18.3b

“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest. . . . It succeeds in its own purpose . . .” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 11.1–2

Big Book: Therefore, we started upon a personal inventory. This was Step Four. A business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret. If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values.

We did exactly the same thing with our lives. We took stock honestly. First, we searched out the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure. Being convinced that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements—how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” —SENECA, ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE, 3.3b

Big Book: It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harbouring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.

“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane—since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.” —SENECA, ON ANGER, 3.1.5

Big Book: Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled— have you no shame in that?” —EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 28

Big Book: We began to see that the world and its people really dominated us. In that state, the wrong-doing of others, fancied or real, had power to actually kill. How could we escape? We saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how? We could not wish them away any more than alcohol.

This was our course: We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick.

The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong. To conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got. The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way, the worse matters got. As in war, the victor only seemed to win. Our moments of triumph were short-lived.

“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth . . . if you make it as far as 30 days, thank God! For habit is first weakened and then obliterated. When you can say ‘I didn’t lose my temper today, or the next day, or for three or four months, but kept my cool under provocation,’ you will know you are in better health.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.18.11b–14

Big Book: If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.

As we go through the day we pause, when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action.

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 11.18.5b

Big Book: We avoid retaliation or argument. We wouldn’t treat sick people that way. If we do, we destroy our chance of being helpful. We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one.

“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest—by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.”

—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 98.5b–6a

“But there is no reason to live and no limit to our miseries if we let our fears predominate.”

—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 13.12b

Big Book: FEAR. This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives. It is an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. It set in motion trains of circumstances which brought us misfortune we felt we didn’t deserve. But did not we, ourselves, set the ball rolling? Sometimes we think fear ought to be classed with stealing. It seems to cause more trouble.”

We reviewed our fears thoroughly. We put them on paper, even though we had no resentment in connection with them. We asked ourselves why we had them. Wasn’t it because self-reliance failed us? Self-reliance was good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough. Some of us once had great self-confidence, but it didn’t fully solve the fear problem, or any other. When it made us cocky, it was worse.

“I will keep constant watch over myself and—most usefully—will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” —SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 83.2

Big Book: When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.

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Marcus Aurelius by Boris Bashirov

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