I was told service and charity was the best way to cure my selfish, self-centeredness. I was told, “You have to give it away to keep it,” and this made no sense to me.
In a time of falling to my bottom, and in a time of painful confusion, I was told to get out of myself and do something for someone else. But how could I? All I could think of was me. All I could think of was my anger and frustration. All I could think of were the rules I was told to follow, which was nothing more than a contradiction to the things I wanted to do. I thought about the place where I was and how unfair life seemed. I was stuck and there is no other way to describe how I felt. I was stuck in a, “What about me,” phase and I saw no way out of it.
They told me, “Give it away to keep it?”
As far as I was concerned, I had nothing to give, so I planned to take as much as I could . . .
There was a lunchtime meeting on 31st St, which was just east of 7th Avenue, and across from Madison Square Garden. The 12-step meeting was held in the Friary bookshop next to the Church of St. Francis. I was in my twenties at the time. I was dressed in a suit and held a briefcase on most days. At the time, I was a salesmen in the New York City garment district, and I was often abused by an angry and fast-talking clientele.
I was frustrated with my life’s situation as well as my career path. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and uncomfortable with the people I surrounded myself with. But without the ability to voice my concerns, my frustration grew into angry behavior.
I did not have what would be considered a “Strong program,” when it came to 12-step sobriety.I was sober, but my only step—or better, my strongest step was the first one. I admitted that I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable.
My lifestyle, which was more than just the addictive nature of drinking or using drugs, had swiveled down into a perfect sadness. Nothing I did seemed to work out as planned. I could not make the proper sales, which I needed to save me in the eyes of my employer. Each time I thought something was going to come my way—I fell short and the sale went to someone else. Financially, my life was less successful. Romantically, my life was physically well, but I could have been in a room filled with thousands and still felt alone.
It was suggested that I “Get involved.” And by getting involved, it was suggested that I take a commitment. This is part of what was meant when I was told “Service and charity.”
I arrived at the 31st St church at 11:30 on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays. I walked into the church office to retrieve the key that opened the doors to the bookshop’s meeting room. Then I would set up the tables and chairs. I placed the literature on a table up front for whoever wanted to read or buy some of the 12 Step literatures. I set up the coffee machine too. Coffee is a big thing at 12 step meetings. At least, I always saw it that way.
I took this commitment because I was told it would make me feel better. However, I did not feel any better. Not one bit.
On one occasion, I fell into an argument with a man who complained about the way I set up the tables and chairs. I did not like this man. I did not like the way he spoke or the way he walked. I did not like the faces he would make when he complained or griped. He was whiny and overly talkative. He had a strange smell to him and he often had bad breath.
It seemed to me as if his voice was the perfect echo for my insecurities, which I interpreted as, “See, nobody likes you.”
I saw him as an antagonist and a physical target.
After suggesting to the man in a loud voice, “If you don’t like the way I set up the tables and chairs, then why don’t you get your fat ass down here before me and set them up yourself,” I somehow automatically lifted one of the folding chairs and launched it across the room at him. Needless to say, I did not hold this commitment for much longer, and if my memory serves correctly, I never saw that man at the noontime meeting again.
If this was their idea of service and charity, then I wanted no part of it. Giving did not feel anywhere as good as receiving. The only problem with this is people rarely give to selfish people. And that was me. I was selfish.
I was so lost in myself. I was wrapped too tightly in my resentments. I was hateful—but I was only hateful because I believed that I was hated. And if I was going to be hated, then I would not only hate back, but I would hate back perfectly.
I believed I was irredeemable. There was no saving me or forgiveness in my future. I believed there was no way I could make up for the things I took, and whether they were physical or emotional, there was no way I could make up for the crimes I had committed. And if this was the case, then why would I give anything away if I believed I would never get anything in return?
I was told that in order to change, we need to behave differently. If you are selfish, give something away. Make a trade. Take an action that would be the opposite of what you would usually do.
I remember I was asked by a sponsor, “There, now don’t you feel better?”
Curling the upper corner of my lip, I folded my eyebrows downward, tilted my head slightly to the side, and answered, “No.”
“You will,” said my sponsor. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
I compare the way I felt to planting a garden or beginning a field of crops. In the beginning, all I could see was the work and not the benefits of my labor. The same example fits with any business plan. The beginning of any project is always starts with the framework. After the frame is set, then the next step is the plan of execution. Each step in a business plan has to be coordinated if it should work. The same, each step of planting a crop must be coordinated if it should grow, and in the beginning—I saw nothing grow. I only saw the work that went into it.
“Just keep going,” I was told.
“Keep planting seeds. Eventually, something will happen. I promise you.”
Same as it is difficult to see the forest from the trees; it was difficult to see my own growth. I had to force myself in the beginning. But eventually, I did change. The behavior I took on, which was previously foreign to me, became a normal pattern of events. I learned to let others go first. I learned to say even the simplest things like, “May I,” or, “Please,” and “Thank you.”
During a time when I felt most valueless, I had no idea what the term charity meant. I did not know the most valuable donation you could ever give is a donation of your time. Money can come and go, but the minutes you give to someone will always be irretrievable. Or better put, a dollar can be spent and forgotten—but the time you spend listening to someone, or holding a door open long enough to make someone smile can never be taken away.
Part of my amends was to give back, but I gave back for selfish reasons. I gave back because I no longer wanted to feel the guilt of being a thief. I gave back to pay for my sins, and yes, the list continues. I still have much to pay for, but I have also paid a good share of what I owe.
Today is a very special day for me. I have been working on a charity event for the last few months, and today is the day of the event. I have been working hard to raise money to help fund cancer research. I am working with an organization that helps children with pediatric cancers. This cause is very worthy to me. And being a Dad; it is very emotional too. I worked hard to get where I am, and the only way I was able to retrieve this satisfaction was by giving something away.
In a few short hours, I will sit in a chair while a young boy shaves my hair. The reason a young boy is shaving my hair is because he once lost his to cancer. This young boy, who did nothing to anyone, never hurt anybody, never told a lie, never cheated on his taxes, pulled a card, stole anything, or even so much as hurt someone’s feelings, was stricken with stage four cancer. And since he unwillingly lost his hair to chemotherapy, then I will willingly shave off mine to show that he is not alone.
I will willingly give back something that could otherwise be irretrievable. And no, my donation is not my hair. My donation (aside from the money I raised for cancer research and to help the families of children affected by cancer) is a minute of victory to a young boy who suffered something he never deserved to go through in the first place. And life become troubled or should the sickness ever threaten him again, no one can ever take this victory away from that little boy.
With all the wrongs in my past, I could argue that I deserve a sickness like this. Maybe this is why I do what I do.
Maybe this is my way of asking God, “Please don’t do it to me.”
Maybe this is my way of seeking forgiveness, but in the land of selfish, self-centeredness, no one asks to be forgiven, and that my friends is how I know the method of service and charity is worthwhile.