Diane Emerson


The Gift Economy, Living Only Out of Joy

As the world of business has taken over people's lives, we have lost something very precious - our community.  Companies do not care for people, people care for people. When you become sick or injured or disabled, and no longer able to work, will the company look after you? Will the company send an employee to help you get out of bed, wipe your bum, feed you when you cannot cook for yourself? Take you to the doctor?  No.  Only friends and family do those things for you. Or they used to, anyway. Now with so many people working outside the home for a big impersonal business or government, no one is left free to care for those who need it.  We must have enough money to pay for a stranger to help us out.  No one has time to get to know their neighbors. 

There is a better way.  Rather than give so much of our precious life energy to an impersonal corporation or government organization, we can invest it in giving to others - the people we live with or near. Our families, our neighbors, our friends.  We can invest in relationships, rather than interest bearing accounts or managed stock funds. We can invest in our community, in trees and parks and playgrounds and education of all kinds, and clean water and air and social justice in our own communities. We can resolve to support local business, and turn away from imported food, out of season food, and food grown with pesticides and herbicides which poison the soil, the farm workers, and ourselves. 

If you resonate with these words, you may wish to read the book Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein.  It is available to read freely online, here.  If you prefer a hard copy, let me know, and I will purchase one for you.

 Here are some of my favorite quotes from Charles Eisenstein's book which has so met my needs for hope and inspiration:

 [M]oney today is an abstraction, at most symbols on a piece of paper but usually mere bits in a computer. It exists in a realm far removed from materiality. In that realm, it is exempt from nature's most important laws, for it does not decay and return to the soil as all other things do, but is rather preserved, changeless, in its vaults and computer files, even growing with time thanks to interest. It bears the properties of eternal preservation and everlasting increase, both of which are profoundly unnatural.


By divorcing soul from flesh, spirit from matter, and God from nature, we have installed a ruling power {money} that is soulless, alienating, ungodly, and unnatural.


Today we live in a world that has been shorn of its sacredness, so that very few things indeed give us the feeling of living in a sacred world. Mass-produced, standardized commodities, cookie-cutter houses, identical packages of food, and anonymous relationships with institutional functionaries all deny the uniqueness of the world. The distant origins of our things, the anonymity of our relationships, and the lack of visible consequences in the production and disposal of our commodities all deny relatedness. Thus we live without the experience of sacredness. Of course, of all things that deny uniqueness and relatedness, money is foremost.


Even customized products, if mass-produced, offer only a few permutations of the same standard building blocks. This sameness deadens the soul and cheapens life.


Here was the link between the two qualities of the sacred, connectedness and uniqueness: unique objects retain the mark of their origin, their unique place in the great matrix of being, their dependency on the rest of creation for their existence. Standardized objects, commodities, are uniform and therefore disembedded from relationship.


[Money’s] original purpose is simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so that we might all live in greater abundance. How instead money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, separation rather than connection, is one of the threads of this book.


A transformation of money is not a panacea for the world's ills, nor should it take priority over other areas of activism. A mere rearrangement of bits in computers will not wipe away the very real material and social devastation afflicting our planet. Yet, neither can the healing work in any other realm achieve its potential without a corresponding transformation of money, so deeply is it woven into our social institutions and habits of life.


I dedicate all of my work to the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible. 


Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth,“You owe Me.”Look what happenswith a love like that. It lights the Whole Sky. —Hafiz


Our lives are given us; therefore, our default state is gratitude. It is the truth of our existence. Even if your childhood was horrific, if you are reading this right now, at least you were given enough to sustain you to adulthood.


Gratitude knows that we honor, or dishonor, the giver of a gift by how we use it.


Here is Lewis Hyde's poetic description of this principle of the gift: The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Social nature abhors a vacuum.44. Hyde, The Gift


Unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants. Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and that when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves. This is the opposite of a modern commodity transaction, in which goods sold are mere property, separate from the one who sells them. We all can feel the difference. You probably have some treasured items that were given you, that are perhaps objectively indistinguishable from something you might buy, but that are unique and special because of who gave them to you. 


Whereas money today embodies the principle, “More for me is less for you,” in a gift economy, more for you is also more for me because those who have give to those who need.


The conventional explanation of how money developed that one finds in economics texts assumes barter as a starting point. From the very beginning, competing individuals seek to maximize their rational self-interest. This idealized description is not supported by anthropology. Barter, according to Mauss, was rare in Polynesia, rare in Melanesia, and unheard of in the Pacific Northwest.


The transformation of money is part of a larger transformation, founded on very different assumptions about self, life, and world. Human economy is never very far from cosmology, religion, and the psyche. It was not only ancient economies that were based on gifts: ancient cosmology and religion were too. Today as well, our money with its qualities of standardization, abstraction, and anonymity is aligned with many other aspects of the human experience. What new scientific, religious, or psychological paradigms might arise in the context of a different kind of money? If money did not arise from the economists' imaginary world of calculated, interest-maximizing barter, then how did it arise? I propose that it arose as a means to facilitate gift giving, sharing, and generosity, or at least that it bore something of that spirit. To recreate a sacred economy, it is necessary to restore to money that original spirit.


In a tribe or village, the scale of society is small enough that those who give to me recognize my gifts to others. Such is not the case in a mass society like ours. If I give generously to you, the farmer in Hawaii who grew my ginger or the engineer in Japan who designed my cell phone display won't know about it. So instead of personal recognition of gifts, we use money: the representation of gratitude. The social witnessing of gifts becomes anonymous.


Money becomes necessary when the range of our gifts must extend beyond the people we know personally.


I am not a “primitivist” who advocates the abandonment of civilization, of technology and culture, of the gifts that make us human. I foresee rather the restoration of humanity to a sacred estate, bearing all the wholeness and harmony with nature of the hunter-gatherer time, but at a higher level of organization. 


It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is now precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, “I can't afford to do that.”


Our purpose for being, the development and full expression of our gifts, is mortgaged to the demands of money, to making a living, to surviving. Yet no one, no matter how wealthy, secure, or comfortable, can ever feel fulfilled in a life where those gifts remain latent. Even the best-paid job, if it does not engage our gifts, soon feels deadening, and we think, “I was not put here on earth to do this.” 


Even when a job does engage our gifts, if the purpose is something we don't believe in, the same deadening feeling of futility arises again, the feeling that we are not living our own lives, but only the lives we are paid to live. 


“[S]elfish genes”—is more a projection of our own present-day culture than it is an accurate understanding of nature.


This new understanding is actually quite ancient, echoing the indigenous understanding of nature as a web of gifts. Each organism and each species makes a vital contribution to the totality of life on earth, and this contribution, contrary to the expectations of standard evolutionary biology, need not have any direct benefit for the organism itself.

 Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift. The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow.


So immersed in scarcity are we that we take it to be the nature of reality. But in fact, we live in a world of abundance.

 I disagree with those environmentalists who say we are going to have to make do with less. In fact, we are going to make do with more: more beauty, more community, more fulfillment, more art, more music, and material objects that are fewer in number but superior in utility and aesthetics. The cheap stuff that fills our lives today, however great its quantity, can only cheapen life. 

 “Development” in such cases raises incomes by bringing nonmonetary economic activity into the realm of goods and services, with the resulting mentality of scarcity, competition, and anxiety so familiar to us in the West, yet so alien to the moneyless hunter-gatherer or subsistence peasant.


Other Quotes Related to Giving Freely

On the Gift Economy


“ I love gifting people my work and having them let their heart decide how much to give.” Ankur Aras


This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love; the more they give, the more they possess. -- Rainer Maria Rilke


The less we participate in this abusive economy, the better. 10% unemployment is deplorable. We need 90% unemployment. If we really resent this system, let’s earn less, buy less, and own less. Let’s invest our time, energy, and resources in things that can’t be taxed or parasitized by corporations. Let’s deal not in dollars, but in energy, nutrients, materials, local currencies, and relationships. Let’s not expand, let’s stabilize. Let’s enjoy art, culture, and leisure. Perhaps we can topple the pyramid by shrinking the bottom. Kyle Chamberlain


You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give. Winston Churchill


Life is an echo - what you send out comes back. Unknown


The joy of undertaking an act of disinterested kindness provides profound satisfaction. From the work of Martin Seligman


Only give money if it is a gift, not a payment. An exchange of gifts, rather than payment for services rendered. Marshall Rosenberg


The best way to help people is to slow down, listen carefully to what they want instead of imposing your ideas on them, and make them equal partners in the enterprise. Greg Mortenson, author of 3 Cups of Tea


Those who give have all things.
Those who withhold have nothing.
Hindu proverb


The system isn’t working for the 1% either. You know, if you were a CEO, you would be making the same choices they do. Institutions have their own logic. Life is pretty bleak at the top too; and all the baubles of the rich – they’re kind of this phony compensation for the loss of what is really important: the loss of community, the loss of connection, the loss of intimacy, the loss of meaning.” Charles Eisenstein


"I wanted no one lifting a finger in that garden unless he loved doing it. What if Fred had hired a man to dig those trenches and it had turned out that he didn't love to dig? Who could eat that kind of asparagus?"
-Ruth Stout, 1955


Native societies, in which people redistributed wealth to gain respect, and in which those who hoarded were detested, upheld a communal ethic that had to be obliterated and replaced with the greed, ceaseless exploitation, and cult of the self that fuel capitalist expansion.  Chris Hedges, in Time To Get Crazy, UTNE Reader, Nov-Dec 2012


The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. Anonymous






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