Empathy Vs Ego

I remember training in a field where one teacher (alone among all the teachers) was not particularly interested in teaching us. He was a superstar in the field, and he would show up late 95% of the time, and when he did show up, he’d often be on his phone and he usually wanted to talk about anything but the subject at hand (he particularly enjoyed discussing religion and politics, areas in which he had little expertise but very strong feelings). He was not afraid to reveal a lack of interest in various parts of the curriculum. He had no interest in following the rules (which forbade discussing sex, politics and religion). He usually didn’t care about teaching us beyond a narrow ritual which he repeated over and over. That said, he was an amazing teacher, even at times, my favorite teacher. I dug his rebellious attitude. When he was around, I was never the most inappropriate person in the room. He might even be the greatest at what he did in the world, but his lack of drive for working with us was all too apparent. He just didn’t give a damn beyond the minimum he had to do to get a paycheck. He had bigger fish to fry. He worked with celebrities. He had dreams. He had problems. He had other things that concerned him far more than teaching us.

Needless to say, he wasn’t a happy man.

I know a lot of writers who teach and many of them, perhaps most of them, teach primarily to make a living and not to be of service. They generally hate teaching. They resent it for taking up the time and energy they would rather devote to other things, such as their own writing. These resentful guys (usually men) don’t tend to make great teachers. They see their pupils as a necessary evil at best. We are in the way of their dreams and we know it. These teachers are the opposite of someone like Terrie Silverman, a great writing teacher in Los Angeles who wants to be of service to her students.

Work has long posed a challenge to me. I don’t tend to like it. I usually find it annoying. It rarely serves the parts of me that I want to unleash. My natural tendency is to be all about me (at work and off work). My natural tendency is not to live in service to others. At age 45 however, I realized once again that my approach to life was not working, that religion wasn’t fixing me, that therapy wasn’t fixing me, and the only substantial relief I got from my depression was going to 12-step programs which taught that the only path out of addiction was a life of service to others.

My natural approach to work is to seek as much money as possible for doing as little as possible and in the tension between those two ends, I’ve usually been willing to sacrifice earning for ease. I naturally incline to using work to try to get as much attention for myself as possible and to live out my habits of sexual and romantic obsession. Surprisingly, this has not led me to success.

The times that I naturally succeeded at work prior to recovery were when my ego fit the demands of the job and my inclinations pushed in the direction of achievement and earning. In other words, when I was writing for a living, my ego oft wanted to dazzle my readers. This drive led me to some success (I was able to make a living as a writer from 1997 to 2007 and partially live from writing through 2012) but I was limited by my limited desire to be of service to my readers (and to various sponsors and employers) and my life remained small. At other jobs, when I loved my boss, I naturally inclined, at least some of the time, to working hard to make him happy.

Under-earning is a disease of hiding and biting. Just as a wounded animal wants to go hide and will bite anyone who tries to bring him into the light, so too under-earners squander our talents and live in vagueness and fantasy.

I remember this tedious landscaping job I had in the summer of 1985. For the first three days, I hated my job. On the fourth day, I felt seen by this client Doug Hanzlick and my love for this man and for his family inspired my landscaping work over the next three years. Because of my love, I felt joy coming to work, particularly when it offered me the opportunity to cross paths with a Hanzlick. Such a classy family. I wanted them to adopt me.

Most jobs I’ve held, by contrast, have not been like that. I come to work and I don’t get enough attention and I have to choose between my ego and my empathy for my employer. The more I devote myself to serving my employer’s needs, the less room I have to indulge my basic instincts. If I want to live up to being my employer’s representative, then there are all sorts of behaviors and verbal play that I cannot indulge in at the workplace. I don’t naturally incline to service, but I do best at work when I do that very thing that doesn’t come naturally.

It seems to me that with the exception of those times when following the ego is in alignment with one’s source of income, that the more ego you have at work, the less interest you have in serving your employer. By contrast, the more interested you are in being of service at work, the less ego you have.

When you take the 12-steps seriously, you see that not only are you a servant of your employer, but you are a servant of God (and not just at work, but throughout your life). According to the Big Book, there should be no difference between the way you treat your employer and the way you treat God. No matter the job, in the 12-step approach, you are working for God. So there’s no room for indulgent ego. There’s no room for disregarding the feelings and needs of others. You are a servant of the Master of the Universe.

Over the past couple of years, the space between serving my clients and serving God has narrowed. On many days, there is no difference between the way I treat clients and the way I treat God. On other days, my ego pushes in and I start doing things that I want to do that are not in my clients’ interests. Luckily, I have various 12-step programs that enable me to reset myself. Every time I go to a meeting or study 12-step literature or talk with my sponsor, it is a little bit of a shock because my natural tendency is not to live a life of service. Unfortunately for my ego, any other way of life leads to my destruction. I either live in service to others or I screw up. When I’m constantly colliding with other people, I know I’ve gotten out of alignment with my highest purpose in life (to be of service to others). On the other hand, when I see myself living a life of service, I furrow my brow and think, “Who is this guy? I hardly recognize him. He seems so happy.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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