There are, of course, many avenues of approach when it comes to altruistic service. It would not be possible to cover them all in an article of this scope. I will therefore focus primarily on the altruism of helping others to improve the quality of their personal experience of life, especially within the context of recovering from the devastation – of body, mind, and soul – that occurs in an addiction.
The generic spirituality practiced in Alcoholics Anonymous is the starting point for this series and altruistic service is where it all comes together in 12 Step practice. Especially known for its concept of service to others, the basis for the phenomenal growth and effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous lies in its 12th Step:
The ‘spiritual awakening’ that comes as the result of working through the Steps of A.A.’s program is described as “… a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being” in which the individual has become “… able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 106-107)“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 106)
The same source further explains:
It is a simple matter to establish at least part of Bill Wilson’s source of this idea of selflessness in service to others. The teaching of Jesus of Nazareth drawn from the gospel of Matthew (Matt. 10:8) is directly on display in the text of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:“The joy of living is the theme of A.A.'s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word. Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety. When the Twelfth Step is seen in its full implication, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it.” (ibid.)
In spite of the author’s best efforts to sanitize his A.A. writings of religious and philosophical dogma that would tend to repel alcoholics, Bill’s own Christian background can occasionally be seen in both A.A.’s ‘Big Book’ and its Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. This is to be expected. We all bring some remnant of our personal traditional background with us as we move through life. And yet, as Bill himself wrote in the 'Big Book' pointing out that A.A. members are supposed to be "non-denominational":“This is Twelfth Step work in the very best sense of the word. "Freely ye have received; freely give..." is the core of this part of Step Twelve.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 110)
Experienced A.A. members report that the most powerful tool for keeping and maintaining their own sobriety is the act of helping others to get and keep theirs. This occurs primarily, but not exclusively, between a ‘sponsor’ and ‘sponsee’. Whether the ‘sponsee’ stays sober or not, the sponsor is usually rewarded with a continuance of his or her own sobriety. Referred to as a ‘divine paradox’ in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (wherein selfless giving becomes receiving), this experience was capitalized on by the early members of A.A. and it continues today."As non-denominational people, we cannot make up others' minds for them. Each individual should consult his own conscience." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 131)
The unwritten A.A. maxim version of this is:“Even the newest of newcomers finds undreamed rewards as he tries to help his brother alcoholic, the one who is even blinder than he. This is indeed the kind of giving that actually demands nothing. He does not expect his brother sufferer to pay him, or even to love him. And then he discovers that by the divine paradox of this kind of giving he has found his own reward, whether his brother has yet received anything or not.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 110, italics added)
Of course, altruistically helping others to achieve and enjoy recovery is not limited strictly to members of 12 Step fellowships. Anyone can help – either formally or informally. One slightly more formal, yet non-clinical example of this type of altruism is the ‘Recovery Coach’."You have to give it away to keep it." (heard in an open A.A. meeting)
Primarily grassroots non-profit organizations have training programs whereby interested individuals may be trained in the skills necessary to aid people new in recovery to improve the quality of their lives in a systematic way. One local example would be The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania formerly known as ‘The Bucks County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency’. Following an established ‘recovery plan’ outline, recovery coaches at 'The Council' help by guiding the person new to recovery to establish and achieve improvement goals in a number of areas of life. The ‘Council’ identifies nine such areas of life in which improvements can be made:
- Recovery from Substance Use or Abuse
- Employment and/or Financial Independence
- Career and/or Education
- Relationships and Social Support
- Medical Health
- Leisure and Recreation
- Independence from Legal Problems and Institutions
- Mental Wellness and Spirituality
If you would like to be trained as a volunteer recovery coach for The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania Inc, please contact them at this link.
The power of what A.A.'s co-founder Bill W. called the 'divine paradox' is significant, unquestionable, and best when applied generically - that is, non-denominationally. But where does this power come from?
Spiritual advocates of altruistic service
An acknowledgement of the interdependent nature of all things is inherent in a comprehensive understanding of systems theories - of whatever description. In teaching interdependence, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh uses a blank sheet of paper and asks the audience to look deeply into the piece of paper. He tells them that the piece of paper is made entirely of 'non-paper elements' and asks them to see in the piece of paper the tree, the water, the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the logger, the logger's grandpa... etc. etc. He asks them to see all the non-paper elements without which the piece of paper as it is could not exist. He makes the point that everything is like the piece of paper - interdependent.
Interdependence amounts to a connection of all things with everything else. Doing good, mindful, helpful things to other people, places, or things makes a person a more valuable asset to the interdependent system of which he or she is a part. This creates an increase of positive energy flow in the spiritual economy.
One of the great examples of altruistic service in modern times was that of Mother Teresa. Her work embodied the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth who is cited in the gospel of Matthew:
Indeed, Mother Teresa herself made this point:“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40)
“There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in - that we do it to God, to Christ, and that's why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” (Mother Teresa)
"Every day I see Jesus in all his distressing disguises." (Mother Teresa)
It seems that service or usefulness is somehow built into the very fabric of the Universe. A race of beings which, in principle, did nothing of service could probably not survive the onslaught of evolutionary processes. A similar sentiment can be found in the writings of the 18th century mystic and revelator Emanuel Swedenborg whose entire theological thought system revolves around the concept of useful endeavor:
“We are not born for our own sake; we are born for the sake of others. That is, we are not born to live for ourselves alone; we are born to live for others. Otherwise society would not be cohesive and there would be no good in it.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity 406)
“God loves every one of us but cannot directly benefit us; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. For this reason he inspires us with his love.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity 457:3)“… the Lord performs uses to people through people….” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained 1226:6)
“Heaven consists in this, that from the heart we wish better for others than for ourselves, and desire to be of service to others in order to promote their happiness, and this for no selfish end, but from love.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets 452)
“The essence of spiritual love is doing good to others, not for the sake of self but for the sake of others; infinitely more is this the essence of Divine Love." (Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom 335)
In the above citations you can see the importance Swedenborg's revelations place on selflessness in one's motivation. One of the more remarkable passages from Swedenborg along these lines is the one that follows. In it Swedenborg is describing the dynamics of the doing of good to others by angels in the spiritual world. Notice that as soon as the actions of the angel become tainted with self the influx (or spiritual energy flow) is dissipated.
So, the really high octane spiritual energy only flows when selfishness is eliminated from the giving which is the same as saying when the altruistic service is coming from a truly loving place in ourselves. This suggests a level of humility that involves acknowledging the True Source of the power to help. Please see more on the topic of humility at my article The anonymity factor.“When an angel does good to anyone, he also communicates to him his own good, good fortune, and bliss, and this with the desire to give the other everything, and to retain nothing. When he is in such communication, then good flows in unto him together with good fortune and bliss much more than he gives, and this with continual increase. But as soon as the thought occurs that he desires to communicate what he has for the sake of obtaining in himself this influx of good fortune and bliss, the influx is dissipated; and still more so if any thought comes in of recompense from him to whom he communicates his good. This it has been given me to know from much experience; and from this also it may be seen that the Lord is in every single thing, for the Lord is such that He wills to give Himself to all, and hence good fortune and bliss are increased with those who are images and likenesses of Him.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets 6478)
World Kindness Movement http://www.worldkindness.org.sg/USA.html
The Center for Creative Altruism http://www.renaissanceofhope.org/index2.html
Swedenborg, E. (1960). Apocalypse explained (J. Whitehead Trans.). New York, NY: The Swedenborg Foundation. (Original work first published posthumously in Latin 1870)
Swedenborg, E. (1969). Divine love and wisdom (C. & D. H. Harley Trans.). London: The Swedenborg Society. (Original work published 1763)
Swedenborg, E. (1983). Arcana coelestia (J. E. Elliott Trans.). London: The Swedenborg Society. (Original work published c. 1749-1756)
Swedenborg, E. (1988). True Christian religion. (J. Chadwick Trans.). London: The Swedenborg Society. (Original work published 1771)
Swedenborg, E. (2006). True Christianity (New Century ed., J. S. Rose Trans.). West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation. (Original work published 1771)
Wilson, Bill. (1952). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (Original work published 1952)
Wilson, Bill. et. al. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous. Fourth edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (Original work published 1939)