Feeding the Donkey Spongecake

“He would say that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would sooner have had no tail and no flies.” (Orwell, Animal Farm)

There’s a saying in Brazil — I write this as if I’ve ever been to Brazil, or as if I speak Portuguese, or have some surface level knowledge of their culture beyond “that’s where the guys with one name are good at soccer” — that goes something like, “alimentar um burro a pao de lo.”

It’s an expression that means to treat someone well who doesn’t deserve it, or is unable to really appreciate it. The loose translation into English is, “feeding the donkey spongecake“.

We serve a lot of this metaphorical spongecake in recovery. Sometimes, the donkey doesn’t even eat it. Most of the time, we feel like the donkey could be a little more enthusiastic about it. We put a lot of work into that cake.

But it’s not really the donkey’s fault. Usually.

It’s a situation one can’t avoid in recovery: we’re all in on AA, we want to work hard to help others, to give back to others what was given to us. We’re excited by every new thing we learn, and we want to share those things with others. Actively working our program, putting real time and effort into our service work, is one of the proven methods for maintaining long-term sobriety. But we need to remember that sometimes our help isn’t needed — or wanted.

Like anything else in life, taking an active role in recovery is about balance. We can’t let someone else’s needs override our own healthy recovery — and we can’t impose on someone else’s recovery to the point at which our help becomes a hindrance.

It can be difficult to “tone it down” at certain stages. When we’re new to Alcoholics Anonymous, basking in the “pink cloud” of early recovery, we’re eager to contribute. Seeing quick, sometimes almost immediate results from working the program is exciting — that enthusiasm is warranted — but it can be a bit much.

Ultimately, we have to put in a good faith effort toward concerning ourselves first and foremost with our own recovery — keeping our focus on our side of the street. It’s true that service work is an important component of that maintenance, but it can be surprisingly easy for what one person thinks of as service work to become an imposition to someone else.

We all know how it feels. Sometimes, someone works hard to help us, and it just doesn’t do any good. Maybe it’s their approach, maybe it’s our attitude. Maybe they don’t have the same life experiences that we do. Maybe they don’t like Star Wars. Whatever the reason, we just don’t want to do what they suggest or listen to what they have to say. It’s important that we don’t take these situations personally. Easier said than done, of course.

I’ve always had a problem with this balance — sometimes I’m the donkey, sometimes I’m the baker, and I guess sometimes I’m the spongecake. Or perhaps this metaphor’s gotten away from me. I don’t even know if a donkey would like spongecake. I guess so. I think I like it, but I’m not even sure about that.

In any case, you shouldn’t find it too hard to believe that the person writing all of these blogs could come across as being too interested or too involved or too opinionated when it comes to other people’s recovery.

Like many other things in this program, I’m glad I’m always given another chance to get that sort of thing right. I try not to offer unsolicited advice. I put effort into realizing that often, the shortcomings I see and criticize in others are only so glaring because they’re my shortcomings too. I’m certainly not in any position to tell someone else what will work for them; I’m hardly sure what works for me some days. I don’t try to overextend myself or assume responsibility for someone else’s problems — no more feeding the donkey spongecake, as it were.

I’ve still got a lot of work to do on the “it’s none of your business” front, of course. I’ll get there eventually. After all, it’s about progress, not perfection, right? And we donkeys are a stubborn bunch.

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