Tag Archives: gift economy

Reciprocity & the Resentment-Denial Dance

This week I am moving through some grief. I had known that a friendship would end had been observing it fade away for a while, and I was hoping it would just fade and drift gracefully into nothingness, but that was not what occurred. Not only was there a calling out of disrespectful behaviour that resulted in denial, blame, and spite being projected onto me, but following that was additional denial about the state of the relationship. I felt resentment that my former friend was so in denial that she needed me to explicitly spell out that we had already co-created the ending of our relationship, and this resulted in even more blame and spite being projected onto me. What a mess of pain we were in.

It reminded me of Torres Islander writer Nonie Sharp‘s concepts of mateship and in-mateship, where in-mateship creates feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, denial. She says that the very presence of superiority creates shame, and a fear of shame causes people to oscillate between seeking revenge and prestige, resulting in psychic bullying, social violence, and denying reciprocity; if you judge someone as an inmate, you control & define social and existential boundaries. I see this as narcissistic…

lotusIn processing this resentment, I realised that when there is a lack/denial of reciprocity in a relationship, we dance between resentment and denial — resentment within the person who feels stifled/unseen because the other person isn’t holding them in wholeness, and lack/denial/not good enough within the other person who feels cut off from their wholeness (and may or may not want to heal that rift inside themself). Those of us who live with an Earth Ethos embody a knowing that we are all interconnected, and we are not lost playing out myths of superiority and inferiority based on existential judgement.

In some people’s minds I “cut off” this friend, but I have not experienced this. I can no more cut her off than I can cut off the air I breathe; she has become part of me and the space she has in my heart and mind will remain throughout my life in a linear sense of time, and is always there in a nonlinear sense of time. Thoughts and feelings related to her will emerge, and I will pray and send love and feel pain whether we are actively engaged in our relationship or not. It was and it is, and through time and space relationships move through various forms, or trans-form.

Reciprocity is a core Earth Ethos value. As Potowatami writer Robin Wall Kimmerer says:

In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counselled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished… It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

My view is that such punishment/banishment on a mass scale underlies the current mainstream Western culture and results in the extreme levels of narcissistic wounding we are witnessing. Aboriginal writer Tyson Yunkaporta explains:

In Dreaming stories, Emu is often a narcissist who damages social relationships. These stories teach us about the protocols for living sustainably, and warn us about unsustainable behaviours. The basic protocols of Aboriginal society, like most societies, include respecting and hearing all points of view…Narcissists demand this right, then refuse to allow other points of view…They destroy the basic social contracts of reciprocity (which allow people to build a reputation of generosity based on sharing to ensure ongoing connectedness and support), shattering these frameworks of harmony with a few words…They apply double standards and break down systems of give and take until every member of a social group becomes isolated, lost in a Darwinian struggle for power and dwindling resources that destroys everything…

Australian Indigenous Astronomy: July 2011Yet in Aboriginal cultures in Australia, the Emu is so highly regarded that people traditionally organised their lives around following the wisdom of the Dark Emu in the sky, which is the constellation of darkness within the Milky Way. The image is from here and shows the Dark Emu during one season of the year, and corresponding rock carving honouring the Emu in Sydney.

Something that I continually find challenging in embodying reciprocity is moving through a world where so many people around me believe in individuality and are lost in saviour complexes that convince them they are working for the collective good. I live on land my ancestors are not indigenous to, and I do not yet know what lands my mother’s family is interconnected with. And when I move through the dance of denial and resentment in an intimate relationship, it helps to remember that once I fully see the Dark Emu I will be wiser and more capable of orienting myself in my centre; and as this unfolds, it helps to have compassion and keep strong in my convictions of the worthiness of this healing journey, as Rumi reminds me. Wuradjuri healer Randal Ross said that we don’t realise how free we are until we see that freedom disintegrate; and I feel that correspondingly, those of us who have been abused and denied are re-membering how free we are through calling it out with compassion and creating healthy, whole lives in the midst of collective wounding.

Exercise: Consider this Robin Wall Kimmerer quote and how you might apply it in your life: “Restoration is imperative for healing the earth, but reciprocity is imperative for long lasting, successful restoration… We restore the land, and the land restores us…The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart…For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend[] on it.”

Gift Economy

A market economy is based on exchange, how much we owe (based on lack) and are able to earn (based on social judgment). A gift economy is based on faith, how much we share (based on trust) and give away (based on abundance). To me a gift economy has always felt natural. Embodying this Earth Ethos of faith, trust and abundance has been a life-long challenge in a lack-based global market economy. It has taken me many years of barely eking out a living, as well as numerous failed personal and professional relationships, to navigate this philosophical conflict with popular culture. Today, many of the services we call “sharing,” like paying to be in a car pool, are still part of a market economy. Charles Eisenstein is an advocate for a gift economy in modern Western culture, and his description of it is as follows:

Many indigenous cultures embody the philosophy of a gift economy. For the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Canada, the wealthiest people are those who give away resources in a potlatch ceremony, which may be planned a year in advance and last for several days. During the ceremony the host distributes wealth amongst guests, including beaded jewellery, leather clothing, and lavish foods. As Elder Agnes Axu Alfred explains:

“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy.” 

In Papa New Guinea, people work for years to be able to give a moka gift to another person, who then works to gather an even bigger moka gift to give, as explained in the following video:

(The full documentary entitled Ongka’s Big Moka is available here.)

While being part of a market economy is currently compulsory for most of us to survive, there are areas of life where we can embody a gift economy. The first principle of abundant giving is that we have to be filled up ourselves and have extra energy to give. We have all experienced someone brimming with kindness so that we feel it in their presence, and another person clearly intending to be kind only able to offer a sheepish smile. Being honest about what we are capable of abundantly giving helps us avoid being in a space of lack. Whether mentally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, we can only give to another what we ourselves possess. Once we judge/expect ourselves, saying we “should” embody a certain state of being, we have lost the ability to embody what we intend. A strengths-based perspective is the starting point for a gift economy.

Simple acts of kindness without expectation of anything in return (not even a thank-you) embody a gift economy, as do larger acts like doing pro bono work or volunteer projects. Most spiritual traditions enshrine the philosophy of a gift economy into their teachings, such as Christian tithing or Buddhist dana. Some organisations such as Vipassana meditation centres and Brahma Kumaris talks and retreats operate entirely on participant donation. But I have observed an insidious tendency to create expectations for exchange. A “Suggested Donation” of a specific monetary amount carries an expectation of a specific exchange, and trying to prove you are “a good person”, alleviate guilt, or “create good karma” are lack-based intentions. (The image below is from here.)

abundance

In my experience, embodying a gift economy in modern Western culture requires firm boundaries, strong skills of discernment, compassion and deep self-knowledge. We need to be willing to receive no money or expressions of gratitude from the person we are serving, and to prevent abuse, we need to know when to say no, to stop giving when it is no longer a gift. I call this spiritual social work, and there are an abundance of opportunities for all of us to practice it daily, such as giving compassion to a person criticising our behaviour, empathising with a leader struggling with narcissism, or giving grace to an erratic driver. Instead of judging and placing someone in lack, which then requires us to forgive, we can practice accepting and holding both of us in abundance. In my life, the person in whose presence I felt the most abundance, who was a subsistence farm woman in rural Guatemala who had a condition causing her skin to change colour and peel off her face and body. She had such a strong, vibrant spirit she was emanating light and to be in her presence felt joyful. Though I have had dinner with billionaires, this lady remains the wealthiest woman I have seen.