From Exchange to Gift

The alternative to an exchange is a gift.

It is a simple and obvious idea.  Its implications, however, take us back to the beginning of everything, to the start of life in the universe, to the beginning of our own.

Examine every mythology and you will find that life – including human life — is never the result of a transaction.  It is a gift, whose consequences unfold into the people whose origins are found in such a gesture.  Life may be a gift misused, those who receive it may not be worthy of the gift, but it is a gift, all the same.

Consider the gift of life we have each received.  There is no medium of exchange into which we can convert that gift to a currency that can be exchanged or repaid.  It is gift, not obligation, which is why efforts by parents to require certain behaviours of their children as compensation later in life are misguided and coercive.

A gift required or expected is not a gift.  By nature, a gift entails choice, not obligation or compulsion.  This is a good thing, because what is of greatest value to us will be something for which we have nothing to exchange, no currency into which to translate it to find something that we can offer in return.

We hear often about the gift of friendship, but it would pervert friendship to see it as an exchange.  Friendship requires a cycle of giving and receiving, each giving what the other needs at the moment.  Its dynamic nature means calculation and expectation undermine, not strengthen, the relationship.

We also hear about the gift of one’s time, usually as an alternative in financial campaigns to the money that is initially being sought.  There is likely good evidence that the more time spent, the more financial support will result in the longer term as people associate themselves with the organization, but these campaigns entirely miss the point.  I can always calculate what my financial donation will cost, but the value of my time is, quite literally, priceless.

Time, after all, is itself a gift.  None of us knows how much we have, and many people have left this world wishing they had more or had used it more wisely.  Turn it into something requiring an exchange, however, and we have wages, per hour, for jobs done.

If you are looking for an explanation, in a nutshell, of why pride in one’s work is less than it was, or why there is so little artistry in the things we create in our civilization – even our art – it is because of the most damnable of all equations, Time = Money.  A craftsman works at something until it is right, until it reflects his intention and his vision for its completion.  Even if it must be finished before it is “done,” whatever regret at this incompletion is matched by pride in what was accomplished and resolution that the next one will be better.

Writers know this as well as any group of people – I can never reread something I have written without wishing I had said more, or found better words, and vowing not to make the same mistakes next time.  Yet writing something as a gift, or as an expression of thanks to the universe for gifts received, is far more rewarding than money for writing words by the pound.

So, as a civilization with all our technological accomplishments, we build bridges that last twenty-five years, bringing materials in transport trucks to their construction over roads and bridges built nearly two thousand years ago by Roman labourers with hand tools and local materials.  We marvel at the complexity of our sky-scrapers, but look with incredulity at the detail of a ceiling mosaic in a mosque or the intricacies of a gargoyle mounted hundreds of feet in the air on a medieval cathedral.  We no longer even hand-write letters – how could we possibly understand the life-work of a monk, dedicated to completing the writing and illustration of a few pages in an illuminated manuscript?  Even postcards are a rarity – collected as souvenirs of a trip, they are no longer sent to friends as a sign of the shared feeling, “I wish you had been here with me.”  Instead, we post a Flickr stream of photos.

All of these are examples of giving the gift of time.  Why do some people feel compelled to do more than is expected of them?  It’s an entirely different feeling when money from a job is received as a gift, not as compensation – out of generosity and not compelled by a collective agreement.  People working to complete a project, I suspect, are happier in the end than those who simply put in the required hours in the day to receive the compensation expected for their time.

Were we to take a tour around the Earth in time as well as in geography, there are myriad examples, everywhere, of how humans have focused their culture on the giving of gifts, even as their societies have developed the medium and practice of transaction.  Even when, as between strangers or leaders, there is what we have mislabelled an “exchange” of gifts instead of gift-giving ceremony, the gift one chooses for the other is a measure of respect, of value, and of worth.  Outdoing the other person through extravagance becomes competition, to be sure, but the well-chosen gift, valued in terms of its appropriateness to the person who receives it and the circumstance in which it is given, is never about what it costs.

So, if humans have always understood what it means to give and to receive a gift, we don’t need to learn new attitudes and behaviours.  We just need to be reminded of why it is important and look for ways to give to other people what it is they need.

If the exchange mentality leads to transaction, gift giving leads to relationship.  Both establish a link, either between parties to the transaction or between people joined through a gift.  Of the two, the relationship established through gift-giving is the one we need most.

Remembering this idea and using it to guide how we live in the world is the bridge to a sustainable future.

Part 3:  Gift ecology