Some years ago, I realized that much
of the great staying power of the AA program is wrapped
up in Step Ten: "Continued to take personal inventory
and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it."
In my opinion, this Step suggests the daily practice
of Steps Four through Nine and is designed to keep us
from lapsing into complacency and self-righteousness.
Step Ten has saved me from more mistakes
than I can count. But time and again, I've delayed taking
this Step--because of pride and fear. One of my sneakiest
evasions has simply been in posing as morally superior
to the person I have wronged.
Since I'm more comfortable discussing
past sins than those I'm committing today, I've talked
recently about the time I broke the cast-iron pulley
in the Detroit engine plant where I worked in 1952.
I can find no better example of using the other person's
faults to gloss over my own mistakes--even when there's
no logical connection.
At the time of the broken-pulley incident,
I was well into my second year of AA sobriety. For the
first time in my life--and as a result of AA--I was
doing the right things, such as getting to work on time
and paying my way in life. AA sobriety had enabled me
to graduate from alternating periods of homelessness
and dependency to a steady life. I was grateful for
my job in a clean factory with good benefits, and I
even had a new car to drive to meetings.
Though I was getting along well with
fellow workers, I was secretly critical of our foreman,
Chris. His sin? Well, in my view he was a terrible bigot,
particularly toward blacks who wanted to move into his
all-white residential neighborhood. By contrast, I considered
myself an exemplar of true racial tolerance. After all,
I attended interracial AA meetings in Detroit and sometimes
lunched with blacks in the company cafeteria. This,
I imagined, demonstrated that I was far ahead of Chris
and the older members of my family in social responsibility.
Aside from his racial views, Chris was
an excellent boss. He understood production and had
worked in the Detroit factories for thirty years or
more. Surprisingly, he worked well with the blacks in
the company. He was also fair and forgiving of mistakes,
as he was the day I broke the pulley.
It went this way: In assembling special
diesel engine units for our customers, our job was to
install accessories on the basic engines received from
the assembly line. This included installing drive pulleys
onto the engine shafts. Performing such an installation
one day, I was too impatient to find the wooden block
that was usually used to tap the pulley into place,
so I tapped directly with my hammer instead.
I had been able to get away with this
several times before, but this time the worst happened--I
broke the thin wall of the pulley groove. Since all
expensive breakages like this had to be accounted for
by the foreman, I reluctantly reported it to Chris.
I can still remember my embarrassment
as Chris looked over the pulley and slowly shook his
head. "How did it happen?" he asked. "Didn't
you use a wooden block to drive it on?"
My first thought was to lie about it--to
say that I used the block but the hammer slipped and
struck the thin part of the pulley anyway. The AA program,
however, had given me enough honesty to sidestep such
a lie, so I frankly admitted that I had been careless.
Chris sighed, wrote up the damaged part
on the necessary scrap form, and then said curtly, "Under
the contract, I could suspend you three days for this.
But I'll let it go this time. Just see that you do things
the right way after this."
I should have been relieved and grateful.
There were other foremen in the plant who issued suspensions
for such violations, so Chris was well within his rights.
Even the union contract conceded the necessity for suspensions
for negligent work. I was being let off gently.
But instead of being grateful, I felt
furious and humiliated for the rest of the afternoon.
And whenever the thought of the incident came back again,
I also felt a resentment toward Chris. Sure I was guilty
of breaking the pulley. But what right did he have to
pass judgment on me in such a brusque manner when he
was guilty of the far greater shortcoming of racial
this sounds like twisted reasoning, it certainly was.
Chris's racial bigotry or other personal faults had
nothing to do with the issue of my work performance.
In the matter of the broken pulley, Chris was 100 percent
right and I was 100 percent wrong. When I broke the
pulley, I had shortchanged the company and reduced the
output in Chris's section. He had every right to be
upset. It was as simple as that, and I should have admitted
That was nearly forty years ago. I worked
for Chris only a few more months before joining the
company where I was to work for thirty-three years,
mostly in public relations. The broken-pulley incident
became very minor in comparison with other work responsibilities
that came later, and it may seem to have little to do
with the business of living sober in AA. But as I view
the matter now, it's a great example of how the Tenth
Step should have been employed, then and at all times
when I was clearly wrong. My sobriety would have been
far richer without this devious practice of mentally
switching to the other person's faults when I made serious
I employed the same trick later on.
One of my bosses in public relations and advertising
was a heavy drinker; I let myself think of that whenever
he criticized something I had done. Another boss was
carrying on a secret liaison with his secretary, and
I used this as an excuse for feeling secretly superior
to him and even believing that he had no right to criticize
my work. Later on, I worked directly for the company
president on some projects. Despite the fact that he
was one of the finest persons I ever knew, I found some
faults in him that I remembered on the very few occasions
when he pointed out a mistake I had made!
So it's a good thing, today, to remind
myself that all attempts to indict those who criticize
me are simply the broken-pulley incident in new forms.
The Tenth Step--like all of AA's inventory steps--says
nothing about the other person's wrongs. The only issue
I ever have to deal with is any wrong I have committed
in thought or deed. And I am responsible for admitting
and facing such wrongs, even though the others involved
may have wrongs of their own which they are not admitting
This may seem to be a humiliating, one-sided
arrangement. Why should I be the one who must always
admit his wrong? But it is only foolish pride and fear
that would make me ask such a question. In truth, I
can only gain in being able to come to a quick understanding
of my mistakes when they occur. Extending this principle
to all my affairs, it sometimes helps me correct a bad
practice or a proposal before it has time to result
in further damage. In one case, it even helped me avoid
a job change that would have been very costly.
If Chris were still with us today, I
think I'd look him up and discuss that broken-pulley
incident with him. I don't know if his racial views
would have changed over the years, but I'd stay off
that subject. My aim would be only to tell him I appreciated
working for him. He was a very competent foreman, and
maybe he should have issued the three-day suspension.
But he did get his point across. I never
broke another pulley.