Service Work in Recovery

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We can help others reach the highest heights, if we only take the time to reach out every once in a while. (Tom Wang/Shutterstock)
We can help others reach the highest heights, if we only take the time to reach out every once in a while. (Tom Wang/Shutterstock)

“Do you see how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls, the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole.


But we, insofar as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

The above quote may be long, but the seemingly complex message behind it is actually quite simple in theory. Every act that we perform has an effect on those around us, which in turn affects the balance of everything we know. The balance of our very lives is determined by the quality of our actions. This is not to say that we should embrace character defects such as pride or self-centeredness; in fact, we should do the very opposite. To recognize the importance of our actions toward others is not to inflate our own egos, but rather to accept that we do not outrank anyone else. And the ultimate demonstration of the humility that accompanies such a valuable realization is the performance of service work.

We have talked about service work before in previous articles, such as our discussions on filling the void left by addiction and staying sober over the holidays. In these articles, our focus was usually centered on the numerous personal benefits we may reap from performing actions in the service of others. But there are many who may not fully appreciate the numerous service opportunities which are presented to us every single day. There are others still who may not realize just how much we have to gain by performing service work on a regular basis. Service work is not a choice, but rather a necessary element of our sobriety.

As such, we hope that you will approach this subject with the gravity it deserves. For every time you improve the life of another, you just might be saving your own.

Defining Service Work

Service work can be any number of things. This man served his country, while this young woman is serving the betterment of this man’s peace of mind. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
Service work can be any number of things. This man served his country, while this young woman is serving the betterment of this man’s peace of mind. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.


O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

—Prayer of Saint Francis

Those who are not particularly religious may still find great meaning in the above prayer, which is often falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi. While Francis did not pen the above work of faith, it does bear great similarity to the writings of one of his companions, Giles of Assisi. Giles wrote:

“Blessed is he who loves and does not therefore desire to be loved; blessed is he who fears and does not therefore desire to be feared; blessed is he who serves and does not therefore desire to be served; blessed is he who behaves well toward others and does not desire that others behave well toward him; and because these are great things, the foolish do not rise to them.”

Note that both writings prescribe service work in a very particular fashion. For service work to be pure, it must be performed without expectation. When a person volunteers to serve food at a homeless shelter, they generally do so without the expectation of payment. When someone gives money to a charity to help starving children or fund research to cure one of many terminal illnesses, they do not do so merely to receive gratitude from the recipient of their donation. True service work is a completely and utterly selfless act.

There are many who shy away from service work for any number of excuses. They may feel that they do not have the time nor the opportunity to be of service to others. Perhaps they feel that they have nothing to offer. This, however, is not the case. Every time we come into contact with another human being, we are given the occasion to perform an act of service, no matter how small. If we see a friend with tears in their eyes, we can make the choice to take time out of our day to inquire as to what is disturbing them. Even if we do not have any advice to offer (or if they do not want to hear the advice we have in mind), we will have performed a service by simply acting as a sounding board for someone in need.

A person does not have to bear a tearful expression to become the recipient of our service work, nor must they actually know that we are the ones to have performed a service. The Secret Society of Serendipitous Service to Hal, an organization geared solely toward the performance of anonymous service work, has published a list of service work ideas which range from paying another person’s bills to simply raking a neighbor’s yard.

Even if we do not go out of our way to perform service work on a daily basis, we should at least be willing to answer the call when an opportunity presents itself. Charity is an act performed, but generosity is a frame of mind. And those of us who led selfish lives while under the spell of our addictions will find that we gain much more fulfillment from the performance of our service work than we ever gained from our previous self-seeking behaviors. As stated in the above prayer, “it is in giving that we receive.”

So we should not define service work by the specific acts performed, but rather by the quality of our intentions. We may feel a tinge of guilt when our attempts at service our denied, but pure intentions are their own reward. And do not be deterred by the concept that good intentions pave the road to Hell; in such cases, the intent in question is often poisoned by self-seeking in one form or another. If our intentions are truly good, then we will learn to channel our empathy and understanding of others toward valuable service that will improve the lives of others while also improving our image of ourselves. And as we learn to—as one talented writer puts it—“become the tap instead of the bucket,” we will replace the above hellish idiom with a much more apt expression:

“Virtue is its own reward.”

Why We Need Service Work

Many addicts and alcoholics struggle with identity issues, but service work gives us a much better sense of who and what we are. Even better, we are able to look at that person in the mirror and feel truly satisfied. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)
Many addicts and alcoholics struggle with identity issues, but service work gives us a much better sense of who and what we are. Even better, we are able to look at that person in the mirror and feel truly satisfied. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

“Try to choose carefully…when the great choices must be made. When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

You may notice that the above quote is from the same source as the epitaph which opened this article. While the book itself is a work of fiction, it contains many discussions regarding our usefulness, each of which contains more than a grain of truth. The “life of being” referenced above is a life without service work, while the “life of doing” is clearly a much more fulfilling option. There are two lessons to be taken from this excerpt, each of which pertains to our exploration of the necessity of service work in recovery.

The first lesson is that every act has consequences which inform our future acts. If we are selfish and dishonest, we will ingrain in our minds the lesson that such behavior is acceptable. More importantly, we will learn that we can behave unethically and immorally without reprimand. In so doing, we will find ourselves developmentally arrested in the first stage of Kohlberg’s moral development. Kohlberg’s first stage is one in which the entirety of our social orientation revolves around the avoidance of punishment. But if we choose to do good, we will move through the stages that allow us to learn the value of instrumentalism as we develop a more principled conscience.

The second lesson is a bit more complex. It may appear in the above excerpt as if the speaker is condemning a life of doing as a life in which self-reflection is nearly impossible. But one may also see the speaker’s words as an indication that there is no more need to worry about who we are. Many of us were lost when we fell into our addictions. We did not know who or what we were, and we latched onto an identity which was easy to maintain. Because at the end of the day, our identity is largely determined by our actions.

If we accept this as the truth, we will come to realize that we have become useful and charitable individuals through the performance of our service work. We will not only know who we are, but we will be at peace with the identity that we have forged through our deeds. And in those moments during which we are able to “stop and simply be,” we will discover that we are no longer encased in a prison of our own sick thoughts. Silence and self-reflection are no longer our enemies, but rather opportunities for us to enjoy our newfound peace of mind.

There is a spiritual component to the disease model of addiction which points to a hole within the innermost being of every addict and alcoholic that must be filled if we are ever to find true contentment in sobriety. Filling this hole through service work enables us to experience a sense of spiritual awakening that so often eluded us in the past. Conversely, the decision to leave this ourselves empty will deny the world of the gifts we have to offer while also denying ourselves the sense of purpose for which we so desperately yearn.

Almost every human being on Earth will question the meaning of their existence at some point in their lives. Through service work, this question is finally given an answer.

General Service Work

Serving food at a homeless shelter is one of the more well-known options for helping the less fortunate. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
Serving food at a homeless shelter is one of the more well-known options for helping the less fortunate. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

“What you love, you will love. What you undertake you will complete. You are a fulfiller of hope; you are to be relied on.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

“The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.”

—Mother Teresa

There are two definitions of “general service” which must be given before we may continue. One is the definition given by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, in which general service work refers to taking a service position with one’s home group, participating in district meetings, or even working at the General Service Office. This will be explored toward the end of this article. For now, we use the term “general service” to describe service work that is not specifically aimed at other recovering addicts and alcoholics.

We have already mentioned several forms of general service work, such as helping the less fortunate by working in shelters or soup kitchens and donating to charities that offer fundamental services to those who cannot get them elsewhere. And we firmly believe that anyone with the ability to do these things should do so. They may not be materially rewarding, but they are rewarding on a deeply personal level. Many, however, may be deterred by the feeling that their contribution is not enough to do any real good. Even though we believe this feeling to be a highly inaccurate notion that should never act as a deterrent against charitable living, we would like to offer a few ideas that may help you to overcome the urge not to give.

One suggestion is to find a form of service work which speaks to you. If a local hospital has ever saved you from the loss of life or limb, you may consider donating to them or even contacting them to see if they offer volunteer opportunities. Even if a particular organization has not helped you personally, you might find it personally rewarding to lend assistance to a cause in which you personally believe. For instance, those with a soft spot for kids may consider getting involved with the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, a donation-run hospital which serves children with various orthopedic conditions and neurological disorders.

Of course, service work is not always about saving lives. Those who possess a bit of a green thumb and an affinity for nature may participate in the development of community parks or gardens. If you are good with animals, then you might consider volunteering at a local veterinarian’s office, or a no-kill sanctuary such as Best Friends Animal Society. With a bit of research and creativity, you can find a way to put your talents to good use in performing service work to promote a cause in which you have a passionate interest.

The primary benefit of tailoring your service work to suit your passions is that your philanthropy will never feel thankless. Even if you feel as if you could be doing more, you will still be able to rest easily with the knowledge that you have given your love to a cause which truly matters to you. There is a great deal of self-fulfillment to be found in such pursuits.

Whether you choose to paint over graffiti, organize a clothing drive, tutor local children, or anything else that may come to mind, you will find that there is no shortage of ways to give back to your community. And as you grow into a more reliable and serviceable human being, your sense of identity will become more solid than ever.

Servicing Other Addicts

Some addicts and alcoholics wish to receive help, but have trouble picking up the phone and asking for it. But we can help many who are so afflicted, if we are only willing to try. (g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)
Some addicts and alcoholics wish to receive help, but have trouble picking up the phone and asking for it. But we can help many who are so afflicted, if we are only willing to try. (g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

“A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth may die.


Hence, an A.A. service is anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging all the way from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee, and to A.A.’s General Service Office for national and international action. The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.”

—Bill W., A.A.’s Legacy of Service

Groups like AA and NA thrive on service work. Without a community of recovering addicts and alcoholics willing to reach out and help one another, these groups would cease to exist. As such, anyone who has been helped by these groups and the Twelve Steps which act as their foundation must give to newcomers the same good will that they have received from those who came before them.

As AA founder Bill Wilson noted in A.A.’s Legacy of Service, service work encompasses any act which serves to keep the program alive so that others may profit from a sense of community and fellowship. The Three Legacies of AA—recovery, unity and service—are forever linked by this very principle. And it is this same principle which brings us to a discussion of the Twelve Concepts.

Alcoholics Anonymous has The Twelve Concepts for World Service, while Narcotics Anonymous operates under The Twelve Concepts for NA Service. Although the Concepts for each of these groups may differ, their purpose is the same: to outline the basic guiding principles under which these 12-step groups are organized and run. Since both groups thrive on service work performed by individuals who understand the value of unity for the benefit of our common welfare, it should be no surprise that those who take service positions in these groups are not compensated.

This is the definition of general service to which we alluded earlier. One may act as a General Service Representative for their home group, attending district and intergroup meetings to keep the Fellowship alive throughout their greater surrounding area. If they do not feel up to the responsibilities of a GSR, they may also consider managing their home group’s finances as Treasurer, or becoming Secretary and taking down minutes at their home group’s business meetings. There are many groups with additional service positions as well, depending upon the group’s specific needs and general attendance rates.

One may also take a position in either group’s General Service Office, responding to letters and phone calls from those who are new to the program and do not know how to locate groups within their area. Some may even become involved in the organization and planning of local AA or NA conventions, ensuring that hundreds of attendees are able to go out and meet others. General service is a great responsibility, but it is also a surefire way of building a strong and sober support group as we are introduced to addicts and alcoholics we may not have met otherwise.

Remember, however, that general service or world service are not the only forms of service work within these groups. Personal service, such as that mandated by Step Twelve of AA, is equally important. Whether personal service entails sponsorship, listening to a fellow group member’s Fifth Step, or simply giving a fellow group member rides to and from meetings, there is something to be gained through the direct assistance of another person’s sobriety. The newcomer will feel less alone when they come to realize that even a perfect stranger is willing to show them hospitality.

Even attending meetings may be seen as a form of service work to the newcomers, as they may be inspired by meeting people with much earlier sobriety dates. And the smallest of helpful actions such as making coffee, setting up chairs or cleaning up after the meeting, will ensure that all in attendance are a little more comfortable and are able to focus their attention on the strengthening of their recovery.

There is no shortage of ways to service others in recovery, but it is vital to our sobriety that some form of service work be performed with alcoholics and addicts in mind. In this spirit, we would like to close this article with the Alcoholics Anonymous Responsibility Statement, as published in The A.A. Service Manual Combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service:

“I am Responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”

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