It’s been a long time since I’ve written an essay. A number of projects are demanding my attention, but recently, I have encountered so many misconceptions about not only the Gift Economy, but the role of money in the new paradigm, that I must respond.
In current time, the term “Gift Economy” is frequently used by individuals who are familiar with the writings of Charles Eisenstein, and in particular, his masterful book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society In The Age of Transition. Charles not only writes extensively about the Gift Economy, but endeavors to practice it in all aspects of his life. The concept is not a novel one, as Charles repeatedly points out, but was inherent in relationships among and between members of some of the earliest human societies. Before proceeding, I wish to emphasize the word relationships—an emphasis I will repeat throughout this essay. As with concepts both novel and recycled, their definitions and intentions become skewed over time, and the Gift Economy concept is no exception, as can be noticed in countless misinterpretations of it one finds everywhere.
One of the first misconceptions about the Gift Economy is that money is inherently evil and that Sacred Economics unequivocally seeks to banish it from the face of the earth. In fact, Charles opens the book with “The purpose of this book is to make money and human economy as sacred as everything else in the universe.” (XI) Notice the assumption inherent in this statement: Everything in the universe is sacred. And of course, the next question invariably is: What is sacred? Charles’ response: “It has two aspects: uniqueness and relatedness. A sacred object or being is one that is special, unique, one of a kind. It is therefore infinitely precious; it is irreplaceable. It has no equivalent, and thus no finite ‘value,’ for value can only be determined by comparison. Money like all kinds of measure, is a standard of comparison.” (XV)
Nowhere in Charles’ definition of money does he state that money is evil. Granted, it is virtually impossible to live in an avaricious, growth-obsessed, predatory, usurious culture in which the rape, pillage, and plunder of the planet is axiomatic, without concluding that money is evil. And indeed, the prevailing manner in which money is acquired, hoarded, spent, and wasted is evil. Yet Charles argues that money is “…an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipresent and limitless.…” (XIII) He calls it an “abstraction” that “exists in a realm far removed from materiality.” What has made money profane, dirty, tainted, and corrupt is its estrangement from the sacred. As a result, it has become larger than life in the human psyche, constellating a variety of archetypes, and reverberating with the trauma of parental and cultural wounding. Sacred Economics is about re-sacralizing all forms of exchange and appreciating them as originating, like all forms of energy, in a Source superior to the human mind and ego with which we are inextricably connected.
“I have therefore written this book,” states Charles, “to describe a system that restores to money the sacredness of the gift.” (13) To what “gift” is he referring? Indeed he is not referring to a specific gift such as when one person wants to gift another with a bushel of apples, but rather, the assumption that all of life is a gift. To exist, to be alive on this planet, even if one was born into and still lives in abysmal conditions, is a precious gift. In other words, all of life is a gift—the good, the bad, the horrific, the glorious, and everything in between. Therefore, gratitude is natural to us, and when we feel grateful, we feel connected. Why is that?
To feel grateful is to experience a sense of relatedness to something or someone. Now certainly, the word grateful can have negative connotations. This very natural, primal, innocent feeling of gratitude can be jaded by people who have abused or shortchanged us in some way and then told us that we should feel grateful. However, an essential aspect of our humanity is gratitude because gratitude affirms our relationship with the other and our interdependence with all of life.
Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply feel grateful. Gratitude must register on the heart and in our relationships as we verbalize it, and particularly as we express it through action. We may want to offer kindness to the person who gave the gift, or we may want to pass the gift on to someone else outside the relationship between the giver and receiver. In the case of gratitude for life, as opposed to gratitude toward a specific person, we may choose to live our lives in such a manner that our work, creativity, home, leisure—every aspect of our time on earth is an expression of gratitude.
Sometimes it is very difficult to feel grateful and live accordingly. Loss in every form can chip away at or cut deeply into our sense of gratitude. Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a pet, loss of a body part, a house burned to the ground, a terminal diagnosis—all of these can inundate the soul with grief, bitterness, anger, despair, and unimaginable vulnerability. Often “why me?” and not gratitude is the first response. In fact, if we do not consciously work with the loss with the intention of finding meaning it, viewing it only as a profoundly unwanted scourge, we are at risk of becoming buried by loss and unable to even partially emerge from it enough to savor life and reconnect with gratitude.
Often one of the most healing experiences a person inundated with loss can have is to spend several hours in pristine, unmanicured nature. Our archetypal, bone-marrow connection with the earth is perhaps humanity’s most fundamental global positioning system. From the beginning, humans have referred to the earth as “she”—the feminine, the Mother, Gaia. To be in close proximity with her is to instinctively feel her abundance. A few hours in nature leave us brimming with a sense of abundance, no matter how much or how little our bank account registers. The ancients knew this, of course, which is why the earliest humans did not have a money system. They gave each other gifts, they bartered, they hunted, gathered, created, and cared for each other together—in community. Indeed, this is why Charles wrote Sacred Economics: “We can embody in our money new agreements about the planet, the species, and what we hold sacred.” (36)
Again, money is not the enemy. How we relate to it and to each other around it is what makes for relationships based on scarcity or relationships based on abundance, generosity, and mutual caring. Thus, the new story of money, gift, and exchange is a new story of relationships. We cannot change how we relate to money without changing how we relate to each other.
The Gift Economy can function in a number of ways ranging from simply making everything free to creating gift circles to bartering to negotiating the value of objects and activities and requesting payment accordingly. Where we tend to distort the Gift Economy, and thereby recreate the old story of money and relationships, is when we assume that money is evil and people should not charge money for anything.
Malpracticing The Gift Economy
Occasionally, I am challenged by individuals when I charge money for events, sell my books, or ask for donations. Often, the challenge is issued with considerable arrogance and resentment. For example, recently I offered an online webinar which featured five other presenters besides me. Upon advertising one of the sessions online, I received a message that said, “Are you doing this out of the goodness of your heart or for money?” I was struck by the hostile tone of the question and the polarization inherent in it as if goodness of the heart and charging money could not happen at the same time. In other words, if one has a good heart, one will not charge money, and if one charges money, this proves unequivocally that one does not have a good heart.
I responded to the message with “The webinar is not free. It is a six-session event involving several presenters besides me, and there is a fee.” I was then countered with a message that said, “I’m grateful that you are able to help people with money. It is unfortunate that we all do not have it.” More hostility.
When I am confronted with these kinds of statements around money, I never cease to be amazed at the lack of relationship in them. For example, the individual challenging me never says, “Hi Carolyn. I’d really like to attend your event, but I don’t have the money. Could we talk about this? I would like to offer an alternative way of compensating you for your service.” Yet again, I reiterate: The Gift Economy is about relationship. It is not about assuming that money is evil, that the person charging money is hypocritically mired in the old story, and that it is OK to fire off a hostile zinger then walk away.
Everyone living in the belly of the beast, also known as the crux of industrial civilization, must subsist to the best of her ability by living with at least one foot in the old story. Unless one is able to grow all of one’s food, live entirely rent or mortgage-free off the land, provide one’s own health care, and construct a lifestyle in which money is not needed, one is compelled to engage with money. I readily admit that I do not inhabit this corner of industrial civilization. In order to do the work I do in the world, I must meet basic material needs. As long as the current money system persists and I reside in industrial civilization, this will be so. While in recent years, I have adapted much of the offering of my work to the principles of the Gift Economy, I am not able to do what I do for free—nor do I particularly want to. Why?
In his recent article “Shadow, Ritual, And Relationship In The Gift,” Charles Eisenstein offers some examples of attempting to practice the Gift Economy from shadow motivations which really do not represent a departure from the old story:
One of the shadow motives for doing work by gift is a desire for exculpation from the crimes that a money-driven society has perpetrated on human beings and the planet. No longer can anyone accuse you, nor need you accuse yourself, of greed, profiteering, or exploiting others. You get to be blameless. Unfortunately, guilt avoidance is not real generosity; it is a kind of narcissism that motivates only the trivial levels of action sufficient to alleviate one’s personal guilt. Moreover, it expresses a kind of scarcity thinking: a conditionality of self-acceptance. It leaves a subtle stink of self-righteousness, and it results in the gift business model not working, since the goal of guilt absolution is best served by being the innocent martyr.
It may be tempting to pride oneself in operating outside the traditional money system when charging for services. “Ya see, I’m not one of those money-grubbing self-help gurus who actually charges people money. I am so enlightened, so adept at practicing the Gift Economy that I can rise above mindlessly practicing the old story.”
Additionally, Charles offers this scenario:
Another shadow motivation is the desire to simply wash one’s hands of the whole fuss-and-bother around money, to avoid the complicated and uncomfortable issues that come up when it is confronted. We are all familiar with the discomfort that arises when the time comes to “talk about the money”; we have all noticed how the cost for various events or products is kept hidden until the last moment or hidden on the bottom of the page. How nice it would be not to have to deal with it at all! Unfortunately, by doing this we sweep under the rug thorny issues that do not thereby go away. Money can be a means for the negotiation of social relationships, for the defining of roles and boundaries. It comprises, in fact, some of the chief rituals of our culture. To discard it without a substitute leaves both parties in a state of limbo, not understanding what their relationship is supposed to be. Perhaps that is why a homeopathic doctor friend of mine struggled to find clients when she was operating without fees, and why those patients she did have were not compliant, not really seeing her as a doctor. The situation improved when she started charging professional fees. On the other hand, the disappearance of normal means of negotiating role and relationship can be quite fertile, inviting the deconstruction and rethinking of those roles, but eventually some other means must emerge. To let go of conventional money arrangements (such as a set fee for service) is not an exit from the messiness of that negotiation; it is an entry into a new one.
If everything is free, you don’t need to struggle with your relationship with money, and I don’t need to struggle with mine.
The concept of the human shadow, of course, is one of the priceless contributions of Carl Jung. It simply refers to parts of self that we disown because they are not congruent with the ego identity we have constructed for ourselves. Thus, sometimes, we may be so eager to distance ourselves from the current money system that we unconsciously resort to these kinds of shadow motivations for doing so.
One aspect of the shadow of every inhabitant of industrial civilization is entitlement. Individuals who “demand” that presenters and authors charge nothing for their offerings are living out the shadow of massive entitlement. The hostility lingering around the edges of “It’s nice that you can help people with money” suggests that while they may grasp some aspects of the Gift Economy, others completely escape them.
So how do we heal our deeply enculturated sense of entitlement?
The Gift Economy is about giving, so when considering an event or an offering in which one would like to participate, the first question that should come to mind is not, “How much is this going to cost?” but rather, “What do I have to give?” Rather than judging the person with whose work you wish to engage, if at all possible, communicate with them privately that you do not have the funds to pay for this particular offering, but you do have time and talents to offer in exchange for admission. Some suggestions may include:
- Making a commitment to publicize the event or promoting it as much as possible locally and through social media
- If the event occurs in your local place, offer to serve on the support staff to register participants, set up beverage and snack areas, run errands, provide lodging for the presenter
- Organize child care for others who may want to attend the event and have a safe place for their child to be while they do so
- Organize transportation for participants
- Help cook or serve food
Whenever anyone negotiates fees with me, I discover that we both have something to learn from each other. If an individual chooses not to negotiate, they miss an opportunity to engage in a teaching/learning relationship with another human being, and I miss the opportunity as well.
Asking For Donations
Yet another misconception regarding the Gift Economy is the notion that people of integrity should not ask for donations. In addition, the person asking or wanting to ask may resist doing so because the ego says that “real men or women” or “successful professionals” do not ask for money. After all, isn’t this really begging? One could adhere to that notion, or one could step into the new story of the Gift Economy. In recent years I have discovered that when I give money or time or energy to someone or to a worthy project other than one of my own, the gift comes back to me not once but many times. Thus, I no longer perceive giving money to a cause with which I resonate as a hardship, but rather as a privilege. Without exception, I have found it to be an opportunity, in one form or another, to receive a return on my investment. However, if I give out of guilt or “shoulds,” nothing comes back, but when I give generously because I really want the cause or person to whom I am giving to thrive, my generosity is rewarded. I support people asking for donations. If their asking rubs me the wrong way, then the discomfort probably isn’t about them; it’s probably about me.
The Bottom Line of The Bottom Line
In recent years I have been blessed to have been introduced to a number of tools that have proven useful in re-sacralizing our relationship with money, including healing our sense of entitlement and our many shadows with respect to money. The transformation of our relationship with money is an integral part of the spiritual journey and our desire to live in the new paradigm. The Gift Economy is not some intellectual concept in which we can dabble then pontificate about how others are using it incorrectly. It is nothing less than an emotional and spiritual practice, and practice is by definition, imperfect. There is absolutely no way to “do it right.” However, authentically practicing the Gift Economy will affect every aspect of our lives, particularly, our relationships. The most priceless “gift” in the “Gift Economy” is the relationships that are formed as we endeavor to live a new story with kindness and creativity. The Gift Economy is a momentous opportunity to experience personal and community transformation if we are willing to engage in difficult dialogs, alter our relationship with money, and express gratitude for the gifts that are ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives.