My Early Experience of the Gift Economy

I grew up in a small midwestern town, the oldest of four children. When I was ten, my dad lost his job. He wasn’t able to get back to work (beyond some random day-time construction jobs) for three years. During that time, my family struggled financially to make ends meet. I was old enough to comprehend that we might lose our house, that we were benefiting from food pantries and other charity.

I was also aware enough to see the social safety net that our community provided for us. Anonymous checks would arrive in our mailbox. My mom was offered odd jobs that I could support her with. One year, a group of neighbors anonymously gave my brother and sisters and I a surprise Christmas, complete with gifts on the doorstep, knowing my parents wouldn’t be able to afford one. Overall, it seemed we were being carried by a providence beyond our grasping.

IMG_6918This experience impacted me in a number of ways. One one hand, it solidified for me the importance of civil society and civic action. It reaffirmed for me how essential it is to invest in a relational economy, and to show up for one another in the context of that. It also has meant that for most of my life, I have struggled with a pervasive scarcity mindset that has tugged at my attention – mostly encouraging me to try and build some semblance of a financial reserve so as not to encounter the stress I remember witnessing and experiencing (with some dose of naivete) as a child. Those feelings have often been in a tango dance with my sense of wanting to do deeply mission-driven work that has often meant a lower annual salary or less financial security. I got caught up briefly in the “you can do well and do good” mantra, eventually realizing tat when people said “well”, they often meant making salaries that were still derived from largely extractive economic activity. Now, I try to focus on discerning what is enough and how to balance it in a way that allows for a deep sense of care and connection with one another.

As I’ve grown in my work, I’ve also come to acknowledge that while I had this powerful experience of the gift economy as a kid, I can’t necessarily expect that to play out in all settings. It is beautiful in practice, it is hard to scale – especially in areas of concentrated poverty. To this day, I still wonder why so many of our economic experiments rooted in care and reciprocity remain fringe. Today, I find myself focusing on translating that experience of reciprocity into systems and structures – financial and government – in an attempt to usher in a more robust, modern economic system of care for one another and our planet. Specifically, that has looked like working in the fields of government, philanthropy and finance. Today, I am working on policy experimentation to support family economic well-being.

As I reflect on the movement ecology framework, I see that I have toggled between the alternatives and the changing dominant institutions spheres. Actually, what I think I’m most interested in is trying to build interstitial tissue between them. Increasingly, it feels like an exercise in translation – what language does each speak? how can I foster more understanding and collective action? I don’t want to just dream about a world where gift economy principles are widespread, I want to focus on envisioning and activating the means to that end.

5 thoughts on “My Early Experience of the Gift Economy

  1. Elizabeth, I find your perspectives humble and refreshing. My outsiders’ view suggests you are doing exactly what you are meant to be doing. I once asked a brilliant, relatively famous, Jesuit friend, “How do I know what God Will is for me? I see so many things to be done, and I want to do all of them, and I just can’t figure out if I’m “in” His Will or outside of it!” He said, “Tina, focus on the things that only you can do! If it something someone else can do, let them! ” He suggests we stick to the things that are uniquely ours to do.

    This perspective has really helped me over the years, as I see more and more things I want to do The ones that I really enjoy are the things that God has already planned for me to get done. In my case its research and analysis of the voices of marginalized consumers. Teaching them how to do it themselves is something that emboldens me. I am uniquely trained and qualified, and I just love the work. That’s my cue that I’m “in” His Will, or “in tune” with Him so to speak.

    I have a strong feeling that your work is unfolding just as He wants, and you are making Him smile with love for you and your work. Plus, He has so much more in store for us! Isn’t life grand!

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    1. Thank you Tina, this is beautiful. I too have often asked myself – “what feels uniquely mine to do?” It’s a challenging question but also has with it an element of consolation.

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      1. You’d likely love Fr. Bob (Robert if you’re looking him up) Spitzer’s work. Many books, and Fr. Spitzer’s Universe on EWTN. He’s amazing. Probably the smartest and most wise person I’ve ever met. A saint of our times.

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  2. I find your post moving and wise. I agree that these types of early experiences have a tremendous impact on us, especially when, as adults, we are trying to balance mission-driven work with security and financial stability. Bringing in the concept of “enough” (as Marco wrote about as well) feels exactly right, on a personal level and on a global impact level. Part of the transformation that we are all undergoing is reclaiming our sense of enough: “I am enough,” “I have enough,” “I have enough to give,” “We have taken enough from the earth” etc.

    Yes to this!: ” …to usher in a more robust, modern economic system of care for one another and our planet.” I also am feeling called to enter into this moment of change and be someone who stands up for “care” as a concept and priority in situations that generally don’t use that language, namely finance and business development.

    Last, it resonates with me when you say you want to have gift economy principles be widespread. I’m finding the insight from Charles Eisenstein’s “Sacred Economics” to be useful right now: He talks about how we have reached the end of our ability, in the US economy, to monetize all the care and relationships and needs that we have as humans, and how we need to take back some of those domains, and in effect de-monetize them! What that ends up looking like to me is mutual aid, a rejection of consumption (I still can’t believe it’s OK to call human beings “consumers” as a neutral term), a return to active participation in our communities, and a focus on relationships rather than isolation and fear, and more gratitude for the natural world and each other. The gift economy is a vision of that. (I’m sure you’ve read it, but if you haven’t, I love “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde.)

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    1. Thank you so very much for the encouraging comments!
      Helene, I read Sacred Economics last year and it had a profound impact on me. I think it started me on a path both to examine the macro structures at play (how did we end up here?), while also examining my personal behaviors and how I put the principles of gift and care into practice in how I construct my own economic life. So much to unpack there! So excited to be getting to know you a bit through this process. More to come 🙂

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