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After acknowledging the unmanageable nature of an addiction, realizing the importance of looking beyond oneself for help, and then actually doing so, the fourth step in a traditional 12-step program is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” What does this mean in the context of recovering from negativity? Surely, when we’ve been working to cultivate a better attitude, the last thing we want to do is make a list of all the reasons why we suck because we’re addicted to negative thinking. Can’t we just skip this one and go play golf?
Well, no. Because that’s not what it means. An inventory is a list, true enough; but in the usual sense of the word, it refers to what one has, not what one lacks. Business owners keep an inventory of what’s in the warehouse so that they can fill orders quickly, take advantage of sales opportunities, and grow the company. A proper inventory requires searching, literally—employees walk through the warehouse and make sure that the items on the shelves match what ought to be there. In much the same way, the searching inventory that takes place at Step Four calls for a thorough investigation of the resources available for moral growth.
This can get uncomfortable, hence the need to be fearless. Sometimes what we find on the shelf isn’t going to match what we thought was there. We might, for instance, wander into a dark corner of the moral warehouse confidently expecting to find barrels heaped high with Community Involvement and Kindness. But instead, we discover dust and cobwebs, along with the organizing flyer for the bake sale that we never got around to baking anything for, and the charity pledge form that we kept forgetting to turn in at the office because we got too busy and it seemed like just one more annoying nuisance anyway.
Taking an honest look at what’s really going on calls for courage, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up emotionally for falling short of our expectations. When business owners look over their inventory and find that they’re running short of some products, they don’t moan, “Oh, I’ve done such a bad job, I’m terrible at running a business, it’s sure to fail.” They simply note the shortfall as an action item and move on.
There are several possibilities for action when a company runs short of inventory. Reordering the usual quantity of the same product is the most common and obvious choice. But depending on market conditions, other options may be more profitable. Maybe the product that is running low is overpriced, difficult for the company’s employees to process, or not in much demand. If so, the best choice may be to substitute an alternative item from another vendor. Or perhaps it should be discontinued because the company has a large quantity of another product, and the empty space in the warehouse is needed for promotional items to use in a marketing campaign to improve the overstocked product’s sales.
We also have many options in the context of a moral inventory. Let’s take a closer look at the bake sale example: After bringing carrot cake to a church or community group’s annual bake sale for many years, we didn’t get around to doing it last year, and now we feel grumpy just thinking about it. Does this mean we should put extra reminders on the calendar for this year’s bake sale?
Not necessarily. Maybe putting together all the ingredients for grandma’s carrot cake recipe seems like it has gotten too time-consuming over the years (it’s now “overpriced” in terms of time); or we don’t enjoy baking as much as we used to (a “processing” issue); or we feel unhappy because the carrot cake is not as popular with the bake sale’s patrons as it once was (the “demand” is less). If so, we shouldn’t feel obligated to do it anyway. Making a cash contribution instead would be perfectly acceptable. And if growing the carrots in the backyard garden was the most fun part, perhaps we could turn our charitable energies toward making better use of our “overstocked” carrot inventory—bringing carrots to the food bank, or working in a community garden.
In general, if there is some aspect of life that we’ve been neglecting and that leaves us with negative feelings when we think about it, then we probably need to look for more desirable alternatives instead of forcing ourselves to do it the same way. A thorough inventory of what we’ve been doing, with particular attention to the reasons for our actions and how they align with our moral values, is vital for making well-informed decisions going forward.