All living beings share one thing in common. Each man, woman, child, bird, bee, and dog – all have just one life.
For every living being, life begins and ends. We are all here for a very short time. Most of us live a life preoccupied by work, earning a living, being on time, and countless other distractions. This preoccupation keeps us from asking ourselves and each other “what truly matters in life?”
What really matters to me is obvious – it is my relationships with other beings, both human and non-human, that are of the utmost importance. They are more important than any job or hobby, more important than any of my successes or my failures. They are even more important than my pride or ego. Yes, it is relationships that matter the most. If you doubt this, try to imagine being the only living being on the planet. You would own everything, yet have no one to share the experience with.
If you were to stop and take note at the way people are treating others today, you might get a different idea about what matters most to us. We are quick to judge and hate, have very little patience, and have little general regard for the emotional state of others. Animal abuse and torture runs rampant throughout society. Our television shows and movies are filled with people plotting against one another. People climb corporate ladders at the expense of colleagues. These are obviously not behaviors that nurture healthy and loving relationships.
There is a conflict within most of us who live in highly monetized, Western societies. It is the conflict that arises when we are forced to compete with others for the means to survive. Think about that for a moment. In order to survive, we must compete with one another. And we are consistently reminded of the costs of losing that competition when we walk by the homeless and hopeless on our city streets.
We are told that there are “not enough” resources and that in order to ration scarce resources we need a system that efficiently allocates scarcity. The truth is most goods are in fact abundant – just take note of all of the underused machines and living space throughout the developed world. We have created the capability to provide for all, and it takes fewer and fewer man hours each year to do it.
Market economies tend to be fantastic economic system for civilizations in need of growing efficient means of providing material comfort. However, they fail miserably in fostering the cultural values conducive to nurturing healthy, quality relationships. Market economies fail to address and, in fact, may hinder fulfillment of non-material human needs such as the need to belong and the need for intimacy, love and touch. Extensive research has proven that these non-material needs are crucial to our empathic development. Failure to nourish these fundamental human needs to belong, to be recognized, to love, and be loved not only reduces the quality of our relationships but also may lead to an increase in psychopathic behavior, general fear and distrust of others, and even death.
To do well economically, in addition to possessing some positive qualities, one must also be opportunistic, attention-seeking, and self-fulfilled – all traits that harm personal relationships. To do well in personal relationships, one must be selfless, eager to give and receive, and have genuine concern for others – all traits that hinder one’s ability to thrive in a business environment. Hence the adages “Don’t mix business with family” and “Don’t loan money to friends and family.”
This internal conflict exists in all of us. And it can be very difficult to live in a state of constant conflict. Our hearts desire to give, but our economic self-interest tells us it is not wise. Our hearts want to trust, but we can’t bear any more disappointment. Our hearts long to love and be loved, but our threshold for emotional pain has already been breached. Because this internal conflict never goes away, we bury it deep inside and compensate for it by seeking ever new ways to entertain – or rather distract – ourselves from it. Hence, the material world thrives simply because it must in order for us to survive.
By contrast, gift economies align the allocation of resources with personal needs for empathic connection, compassion and love. Gift economies are nothing new – they exist today for each of us. When you provide for a family member or have friends over for dinner, we do not send them a bill at the end of it. We give freely with the unmentioned knowledge that our gifts will be recognized and reciprocated for each gift creates a bond of gratitude. The more you give, the more gratitude is created. The more gratitude that is created, the more wealthy you become. Gift economies remove the internal conflict that derives from competition, instead placing more value on cooperation.
Deep inside, we know life can be much more beautiful – with less fear, worry, control and more love, compassion, and empathy. We already know what is most important. It is time that we start living in the spirit of the gift, by understanding the unique gift we each have to give the world. Even if today you lack the means to give material things, you have the power to give your love, your compassion, your attention, and your forgiveness. We need not worry about ourselves. Lewis Hyde writes:
The gift moves towards 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 towards 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.
Living in the gift also means opening up to receive, for there can be no gift without someone’s willingness to accept. Once you have received, you will feel gratitude for not only did you receive a precious gift, you strengthened a bond – a bond with another being experiencing their one and only life with you. Now what greater gift can there be than that.