To send from yourself what you hope will not return

In Boston AA, they call it Getting Active with your group. You get in the car and travel to some other AA meeting on the other side of town, and you get up in front of the assembly of addicts and Share. When Gately goes on these Commitments with the Crocodiles, the more he “slips up” and admits his shortcomings in sobriety, the more enthusiastically the addicts react to his Share. They tell him that having heard his testimony has done wonders for their own sobriety, and beg him to Keep Coming Back, for their sake if not his own. By speaking honestly about his own struggles with the Program, Gately has unwittingly been of service to all the other addicts in the group.

If you used the word “serve” with Don Gately, it would probably summon to mind his bit in MCI-Billerica, or the next impending stint in prison he’ll likely have to serve. If you used the word “serve” with Hal Incandenza, he’d undoubtedly think of his tennis serve, which he’s spent countless hours perfecting, hitting balls to no one in the cold Boston pre-dawn mornings. According to Schtitt, to serve in tennis is “to send from yourself what you hope will not return.” For Gately, service is paying what he owes. He serves his time in prison as penance for his crimes. He serves the newly-sober at Ennet House by running errands, cooking dinner, and staying up all night on Dream Duty. He serves his fellow AA’s by sweeping up and emptying ashtrays after meetings. He serves perhaps the few Boston citizens less fortunate than himself, the homeless and incontinent at the Shattuck shelter, by cleaning their bodily excretions. Without realizing it, Gately has devoted his whole life in sobriety to serving others. He considers his sobriety a cosmic loan, which he can only hope to pay back by aiding the sobriety of others. By paying sobriety forward, Gately is sending his addiction from himself, in the hopes that it will never return.

It’s been a while since I last practiced Lectio Divina with this text, so the rest of this post will be devoted to finding meaning in a random sentence from this week’s reading.

“None but the most street-hardened Ennet residents would ever hazard an open crack about the food, which appears nightly at the long dinner table still in the broad steaming pans it was cooked in, with Gately’s big face hovering lunarly above it, flushed and beaded under the floppy chef’s hat Annie Parrot had given him as a dark joke he hadn’t got, his eyes full of anxiety and hopes for everyone’s full enjoyment, basically looking like a nervous bride serving her first conjugal dish, except this bride’s hands are the same size as the House’s dinner plates and have jailhouse tatts on them, and this bride seems to need no oven-mitts as he sets down massive pans on the towels that have to be laid down to keep the plastic tabletop from searing.” (469)

(I swear I didn’t cheat and purposefully pick a sentence with the word “serve” in it, total coincidence!)

  1. Gately is serving a dinner of his own making to the Ennet House residents.
  2. Even though the food is a bit unappetizing, none of the residents want to complain or insult the meal because of the physical threat of Gately’s enormous size. The humor of the scene comes from the juxtaposition of Gately’s large, imposing size and his gentle demeanor, plus his desperation to serve everyone a tasty meal.
  3. This sentence makes me think about the double-sided nature of service. We serve to help others, but the feeling of having served well also benefits the servant. Service is a paradox, both selfless and selfish. It also makes me think of the transformative power of service. Being a servant has changed Gately from a sometimes-violent thief into a blushing bride, anxiously awaiting the reactions to his meatloaf covered in cornflakes (for texture.) Gately has transformed from addicted burglar to sober servant, from one who consumes and steals to one who abstains and gives back.
  4. This sentence calls me to embrace my vulnerability more. I tend to throw up defense mechanisms like humor or apathy, especially when putting something out into the world that I really hope people will like. This description of Gately is so endearing. I aim to be more like him, with my hopes for people to like what I make written all over my face.