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Service, Character, and Recovery

In a healthy individual there are at least three stages one goes through in which service work is important to develop the personality. The first stage is the idealistic stage. It is important that young adults go through this stage. For the development of a healthy value system young people need to feel sufficiently strong about their ideas and values to act upon them. It is the experience of acting on their values that allows what is valued to have resonance in their personality. Service can be a way to experience personal values and grow from them in the same way one might grow from a painful emotional experience.

In the normal, healthy sequence of development, idealism as a motivation for service will become tempered. The person who first sees the issue as entirely black or white will begin to see the gray nuances. The values will still be there, but the person will be less judgmental about those values. Youthful idealism will no longer be the motivation to do service work.

The second stage is what might be called the “Rotary Club stage.” In this stage one is interested in service work in order to be a part of the larger community. There is a healthy component of self-interest here. Service organizations are a way to become known, to make contacts, and to help get things done. Much of the important work that is done on Bar committees is the result of second-stage service work. This is a valuable and significant stage for growth in the personality in which one experiences activities based upon meaningful values in order to become a part of something larger than oneself. It is an experience we all need.

The third stage of development is one that a person rarely gets to before mid-life. At this stage one does service work not to impress others or to feel that one belongs, but because of one’s relation to one’s self. The service given is because of who a person is on the inside. In the third stage, a person is not acting out of an external value system that defines what is right, or a need for external approval, but out of his or her own character. This type of service work, the experience of activities selflessly undertaken, is what deepens and refines character. This is the stage in which the character work gets done that builds the personalities of people that we all admire like Gandhi or Mother Theresa.

In the field of addiction treatment, a cognitive approach has little efficacy. Chemical addiction is in part a disease of the brain. People who think about not wanting to drink as a way to get better just become more and more obsessed with drinking. Treatment for alcoholism is not based on thinking your way out of the problem but on taking action to experience a new pattern of living. In fact for the normal, healthy adult, the process of emotional maturation is also primarily one of growth through action, through experience. We don’t think about what it is like to experience the death of a parent, and grow emotionally by having thought about that experience, rather we get real emotional growth by living through the experience of the parent’s death.

One of the greatest attributes of Alcoholics Anonymous is that its founders recognized the connection between service work and the rebuilding of a mature and healthy personality structure. The prescription for the self-centeredness caused by chemical addiction’s narrowing of the personality’s focus onto alcohol or another drug is to learn to be of service. It is the way in which the character eroded by disease-driven behavior is restored. Working with people of character is one of the reasons it is fulfilling for me to work on a daily basis with the more than 65 PALS volunteers. In short, most of these lawyers have been faced with a fatal illness and in the process of accepting what is necessary to cope with their illness, they also get sent to “an advanced character school.” A person trying to get well doesn’t know this is going to happen. In fact in the beginning they are simply at their wits’ end of how to deal with the chaos in their life caused by their chemical addiction. Character building is a by-product of those who seriously commit to and work the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. This character building comes through selfless service.

I enjoy the feeling of being of service, but the truth is that I would like to get credit for it. Selfless service does not come easily. Selfless service is a way of living the twelve steps. Twelve-step exercises are very practical and are similar to exercises found throughout history in groups directed toward strengthening a sense of conscience. Here is a challenge for those ready for third stage character work: do one act of service anonymously each day. It doesn’t have to be big. It might be getting to work early and fixing the coffee for everyone else.

Like a lot of little things that make a big difference, this sounds easy or small. The experience of doing is what counts. We are fortunate to have a number of lawyers in our Bar who have, in their own individual ways, walked this walk. I think of people like the late John Kernodle, who worked quietly and diligently as a PALS volunteer. John’s level of service was great. He served Greensboro and the state in many public ways, but what remained hidden was the extraordinary devotion that made his service possible. In our Bar there are many men and women who know at a deep level the meaning of selfless service. We are each glad for those like John, people of character, whom we can call mentors and friends.

– by Don Carroll

From, The North Carolina State Bar Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1997

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