Service With a Smile

By Maddy Demberg 04/21/14

You have to give it away to keep it.


If you attend 12-step meetings, you’ve probably heard people say “Service keeps you sober.” This nice little aphorism is usually followed by a sweet mid-meeting PSA of a service commitment that has just been made available. Back in the day, newcomers were given such “service” positions with the thinking that such responsibilities would help keep the newbie sober: making coffee, putting away chairs, cleaning up before or after a meeting. No one ever really explains how cleaning a room or making coffee would help keep someone sober. The idea is, it just does.

I’ve always been the martyr type so even before coming to AA I was big on helping others. I was a young activist in my teens—anti-nukes, anti-meat eating, anti-corporation. I got a zing out of igniting my anger, and protesting helped tap into and prolong that zing. Marching and screaming on behalf of others made me feel like I was actually doing something to change the world. Plus, I felt better. I was marching while everyone else (or so it seemed) was at home watching television. I was part of the solution. Everyone else was part of the problem.

The longer I look at myself, the worse I look; conversely, as soon as I turn away and engage in the world, the better I feel.

I also volunteered quite a bit: I helped mothers and their children in a homeless shelter. There, I read to the children and taught the women to read. I spent time in a refugee camp in the Middle East where I was a witness to atrocities, and also walked children to school and back to protect them from being shot at by soldiers. I volunteered in the eating disorder wing of a psychiatric ward where once a week I brought in a writing workshop and helped the girls there give voice to their grievances. But the thing is, though initially I volunteered to help others because I felt I had something I could give, somewhere along the line the volunteering became a kind of badge. It fed my ego. 

An alcoholic, I have always suffered from the two extremes of “I am the worst, most useless person in the world,” and “I am the most gifted, brilliant, genius in the world.” Volunteering was perfect for this because it targeted both of these. I felt good when I was helping others because it made me feel grateful for what I had, but also, like I said, because by doing so I was telling myself I was better than other people. This helped my low self-esteem, making me feel like I wasn’t completely worthless. But at the same time, it fed into my ego. Most people don’t volunteer, therefore, I told myself, I was better than most people. 

Early on in my sobriety, I did loads of service. At one point, I was chairing three meetings and doing additional service at two other meetings. I was also sponsoring other women. Though I was, no doubt, helping others, I also got an ego boost. I got to tell people about all the service I was doing which made me feel important and special. And, of course, better than everyone else. 

So service is a complicated issue. Or is it? When I first got sober someone gave me a card that fit into my wallet. On it were a bunch of slogans from AA. Among them was one that said something along the lines of: Do one good deed for someone else without telling them or anyone else. If that person finds out, it no longer counts. When I read this, I knew this to be true. Helping others is less helpful when I use it to make myself feel better. Something else happens when I do something for someone else and don’t tell them or anyone else. It’s magical, actually. And though it does make me feel good, it does it in a different way. 

Because, in fact, there are several ways of doing service. One way is doing service because you’ve been told that you should. This is what I did for much of my sobriety. My sponsor told me to get a service commitment and I heard people in the rooms talk about the importance of service. So, being an addict, I got myself a bunch of service commitments. The second way of doing service is doing it to feel better for having done the service, wearing one’s service as a kind of badge. This I also did for much of my sobriety. Connected to this is a kind of crude commerce-like transaction which works like this: if I do service, I will stay sober. If this is what I am thinking when I’m talking to a newcomer or a sponsee, then really, all I am thinking about is me. I’m being selfish. 

The third way of doing service is spiritual, really. It is the idea that by helping others, we lose ourselves. Now that I’ve worked the 12 steps formally with my sponsor, I practice steps 10, 11, and 12 on a daily basis. Whenever I experience fear, selfishness, and dishonesty, or if I am inconsiderate, I ask God to remove the defect from me, and then I call my sponsor and tell her. As soon as I get off the phone with her, I look to see what I can do to be of service. 

In the beginning, I would tell her what I was going to do. For a few months my husband and grandmother received a series of gifts and packages. Now, whenever I find myself thinking of myself (worry, fear, envy, and so on), I ask for the defect to be removed, I call my sponsor and then immediately look to see where I can be useful. It might mean picking up litter off the street or calling a newcomer, it could be smiling and saying hello to someone. What happens here, in this form of service, is that I forget myself. I don’t get an ego boost because what I am doing is small. 

Every night before I go to bed I write an 11th step review which I then email to my sponsor. On it are the basic questions listed on page 86 in the Big Book. The one that helps me most in this area is, “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?” Every night I have to write out the words, “I was mostly thinking of myself.” On good days, I then add a list of what I did for others. What this question does is remind me how far I still have to go.

Helping others is, in the end, what will save us. I spent years in therapy and an inordinate amount of money on self-help books to no avail. It turns out, the more time I spend looking at myself, the more time I spend looking at myself. In other words, I get nowhere. And, even worse, the longer I look at myself, the worse I look. Conversely, as soon as I turn away and engage in the world, the better I feel. I can’t tell you who or how it works. I can only tell you that it does, in fact, work. 

Here are some more reasons why service and helping others is important: 

God made us to help others. The thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, Rumi, wrote of a man walking by a beggar then asking, “God, do you not do something for these people?” God replied, “I did do something. I made you.” 

Helping others is what we were made for. Even AA's Big Book states this same purpose: “Our primary purpose is stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety." Helping others or doing service isn’t going to get us a better job or the ability to buy more stuff. Genuinely helping others helps us lose ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “To find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others.” Alcoholics are self-centered creatures. The more I think about myself, my concerns and my worries, the more miserable I become. Try it yourself. Sit down and think about yourself. Let your self worry. Try this for one hour and see how you feel. Now, try calling someone else. Anyone, really. But don’t talk about yourself. Ask the other person how she is, how her day is, how her children, husband, and job are. Then listen. You don’t even have to say anything, just listen. When the other person asks how you are, answer, but move the conversation back to her. See how you feel after. Most probably, you’ll feel better. When we get the focus off ourselves, we find true freedom. But in order to keep this freedom, we have to continue keeping the focus off ourselves. Hence, my sponsor’s having me do one thing for someone else immediately after making a tenth step call. If I sit around and think about resentment or a fear, it will grow. If, instead, I turn my attention to doing something to help someone else, I will forget my resentment or worry. 

Helping others helps us see ourselves. When I’m working with sponsees, I see myself. I see both where I have grown, as well as where I have not. But also, by listening and loving my sponsees, I gain empathy for myself. This helps my life, obviously. It means less self-criticism and as a result, when my critical voice is turned down, it is also turned down on others. What this means is that the more compassion I have for myself, the more compassion and less judgment I have for others. In the world of theology and philosophy, this shift is called a perspective change and this ability to see the world differently is huge. 

Giving to the world and helping others helps us to feel a part of the world. The philosopher Cornell West writes, “A rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little bit better than you found it.” When I serve food to men, women and children who have no home or sit in a coffee shop and talk to a woman struggling with her addiction, I feel myself to be intrinsically bound to these people and, as a result, to this world. And in that moment any sense of loneliness or isolation is singed away. When I help others with no expectations of gaining anything back, I am, paradoxically, given back more than I could ever imagine. I am made whole, all my worries and concerns, needs and desires, removed from me. By helping others, a shift, and what can only be termed a miracle, occurs. The entire world is given to me.

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix

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