A Season for Personal Inventories

Lent in Practice (With the Help of AA’s Big Book)

Todd Brewer / 3.9.23

Every year, just after Christmas, the store would close to customers for a day and the round-the-clock counting would begin. Not only were the products on the floor counted, but also the shelves, stands, and hooks on which the 60 TVs, 195 CD players, and 80 cordless telephones were placed. The sum would include the 14 registers, 521 pens, 126 spare name badges, and even the one refrigerator in the break room. It was grueling work, but necessary. An accurate and up to date tally after the holiday crazy accounted for which items were damaged, lost, mislabeled, or stolen. An inventory, in other words, isn’t so much about determining total sales, but identifying failures and oversights. One day to count the losses of the previous year and start off with a clean slate.

For the 40 days of Lent, time is set aside for inventories of a more personal variety, to work the steps of Alcoholic Anonymous and make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” To examine those things done and left undone and peer at the unmentionable parts of life we’d much rather forget.

Counting compact discs was easy, but it’s far less easy to number one’s transgressions. Like a weekly screen time report, assigning a numeric value to past transgression makes them inescapably more real. Numbers don’t lie. Were a yearly report of wrongdoing to be tabulated, the list would be staggering, to say the least. 137 incidents of road rage, 2 stolen items smuggled underneath the shopping cart, 211 snarky comments on social media, 3 broken relationships, 247 outbursts at your children, 107 directed to your spouse, 28 passive-aggressive emails, 123 indifferent shrugs when asked for help … the list could seemingly go on forever.

A searching and fearless inventory is necessary precisely because so much of our mental energy is spent concocting strategies to get us personally off the hook.

For some, the only situations we might label as evil are those broader social maladies. The big problems, however they are defined, render as negligible, whatever petty crimes we may have committed. Consequently, our conscious moral inventory consists solely in the many fractions of complicity we have in some larger systems. All the while, sin becomes something abstracted from daily life altogether — or worse — an opportunity to thank God that we are not like other people.

A different deflection strategy understands sin to be some function of culpability: you can’t be held as guilty if you were incapable of doing otherwise. Here, psychological insights or your favorite personality test are weaponized for blame-shifting: “I’m not a morning person,” or “she’s just reenacting past familial dysfunction.” Such reasoning may hold up in certain courts of law, but last time I looked there were no caveats given in the 10 Commandments. You might be an insecure, youngest child, enneagram 3, but you’re still an insufferable jerk who is unaware of doing anything wrong.

Another avoidance tactic only defines wrongdoing with respect to the harm it causes another, an almost “no blood, no foul” approach to supposedly victimless crimes. This conflation of sin with damage strikes me as dangerously reckless, like a police officer who only tickets drivers for speeding after they cause a multi-car crash. While sin is harmful, deadly even, its many effects usually go unnoticed by the offender.

Though a few particularly scrupulous people live with exhaustive moral inventories, the rest of us would rather ignore the unpleasantry altogether. But ignoring personal failures and oversights doesn’t make them go away. No matter how much one may focus on the hallmarks of personal wellness: having a healthy diet, carving out space in a busy schedule to “be kind to yourself,” exercising, or getting more sleep, the past always has a way of catching up to you. Unaccounted for, our misdeeds slowly accumulate until the dam bursts and we are left wondering where it all went wrong. Though we might not have been keeping track of all the snide comments we’ve made to feel important, other people have been doing so for years. And they’ve had their fill.

A personal moral inventory, whether it be of the AA variety or not, reveals how fragile personal growth really is and shatters the illusion of self-reliance. Our unpleasantness tends to show itself in repeated patterns spread out over decades. The contexts may change, but the fears or resentment remain eerily similar. An inventory, as John Zahl wrote in his book Grace in Addiction, “open[s] the door to the idea that we may, in fact, need a complete make-over and not just a little bit of tweaking” (p. 151). Though we are tempted to believe someone else is to blame, we are the only common denominator in all of our problems.

In Psalm 130, the psalmist laments, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, oh Lord, who could stand?” Faced with the possibility of a cosmic ledger of sin, they recognize that no one could withstand such a lengthy tabulation. Such a list could not be set aside or ignored by God — or the psalmist — it could only be forgiven.

A “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” does not provide relief from its contents, no matter how scrupulously it may be tallied. But it does begin to make plain what would otherwise be overlooked: that mercy is the only way forward. It is no accident that the season of lent culminates on Good Friday, the remembrance of Jesus’ death for the sins of the whole world. For 40 days the personal inventory is counted, 40 days of repentance and lament, 40 days of introspection over the bottomless well of human failure until we see the worst of ourselves mirrored in the crucifixion of a righteous man, whose last breath speaks of forgiveness.

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One response to “A Season for Personal Inventories”

  1. David Albertin says:

    I hate to say it..
    I dont know what you’ll think of me.
    40 Days! At it’s still not enough

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