Saturday, November 22, 2014

Receipt - Gift, Kula, Grace, and Charity

This week, I was involved in a discussion about charity again, and it has been heavy on my mind recently. The book the group is reading is called Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and it essentially puts to question the way we do charitable work. 

I have no answers.  But the discussion has made me think about what happens when we are on the giving end, and on the receiving end, of an unequal giving relationship.

My Wealthy Benefactor

In 1994, I made a friend while doing fieldwork in Mexico.  She showed up a week or so after the fieldwork had started, and she was a force to be reckoned with.  She did a lion's share of the grunt work, trekked twice as far as everyone else, and we quickly became friends.

I found out at the end of the field season that she was wealthy.  Very wealthy.  Like buy-a-Lambourghini-because-I-can kind of wealthy. 

I had not the first clue.

Eventually, she told me the story - she and her husband had been in on the ground floor of a company in a place called Silicone Valley, back before it was known as such.  Overnight, they went from a small company of fifteen people to an international company manufacturing hard drives for computers everywhere.

A year later, on my way to a field season in Hawaii, I stopped by her home in California to visit, and she loaded me up with cool loot for the field season. Sony cassette players (yes, it was a while ago), towels, water bottles, gear.... it was like going to a camping store and just pulling stuff off the shelf.

And I mentioned to her that I was a little uncomfortable. That I had a hard time with a gift I couldn't reciprocate for.

"Crorey, look.  I have found this to be the hardest part of being rich.  When I first got more money than I could spend, I made two changes: I bought enough Levi's jeans - the only brand that fits my frame - and I stopped buying paperback books.

"I looked around at the people that I loved - my friends - and looked to see what I could give them.  And I was surprised at how giving gifts completely ruined my relationship with them.

"They started getting uncomfortable with the fact that they felt it was an unequal relationship, and they started finding reasons not to be around me.  But I never saw it that way, and it was a hard thing to recognize.  Because for me, it didn't have anything to do with buying their love, or creating an unequal balance of power.  It was just about doing something for a friend that they could not do for themselves."

The only response I could have at that point was to look her in the eye, and say, "Thank you."

I have always struggled with that kind of inequality.  I love giving.  I love getting the present just right.  I love watching the response when the gift is unexpected and perfect.  It is part of the reason that I am enamored of surcees - because the unexpected nature of the gift makes it easy to connect the pieces of 'rightness' and 'unexpected pleasure'. 

But with surcees particularly, the fact that they are gifts of small value makes the resulting imbalance miniscule. Last year I received a small gift of an inflatable fruitcake ("Tasty as the REAL thing!") and it gives me a smile every time I see it (thanks, Gracie!). 

The gift cost almost nothing, and that is what gives it incalculable value.  But....

Enter into the equation an inability to reciprocate.  Suddenly the imbalance is the only thing that the recipient can feel - it is the foundation of the experience. At that point, the joy dissipates, and there is left a difficult situation. This is the reason that charity is such a sticky wicket for all parties.  There is something special that happens during gift giving that is not apparent.

Kula Ring and Gift Giving
The Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea were the subject of a study by Bronislaw Malinowski (and subsequently by a number of others, including Marcel Mauss).  BM looked at the trade that happened between neighboring islands in the ring and discovered that there was a part of the trade that was not consistent with a tit-for-tat barter economy. 

A gift would be given would be given from one partner on one island to his counterpart on the next island.  Red shell-disc necklaces are given as gifts in a clockwise direction around the ring of islands and white shell armbands are traded in the opposite direction (the network is the Kula Ring). The giving of the gift would introduce a force - Mauss referred to it as mana - that exerts a pull to respond with a return gift to the giver.  Reciprocation is a compelling force. (I feel that compelling force with every unreciprocated Christmas card I receive....)

After some amount of time, the recipient of a red shell-disc necklace would respond with a white shell armband, and the pull for reciprocation would .  The gifts themselves increased in 'value' over time, as they were given to increasingly important people.  The gift-giving mechanism also served as the basis for other trade relationships - a armband-bearing friend is a good partner to barter with for food.

The inequality among gift givers is a temporary status.  Once the reciprocal gift is given, the debt is paid. 

Christian Grace
I struggle with the idea of grace in Christianity.  Grace is the gift of having an unequal relationship - between deity and human - leveled.  That leveling is not not something that can be earned, it has to be a 'hand-up from above', one-sided offering.  I can live the best life possible, I can do good at every opportunity, but I will never be able to become equal to the divine through effort or force of will.

The basis of Christianity is that the inequality in status between God and humans creates a divide.  That divide can only be bridged through an intermediary.  That act, making the relationship right, creates a debt.  It is a benefit that cannot be earned, an advantage that is given freely. 

By background makes me rebel against that.  To a southern, white, male person like me, the thought of getting something I did not earn creates a cognitive dissonance. I have to earn anything I receive. 

I was reared to ignore the benefits I received from the start, and to recognize the hard work that led to the dividends I had 'created'. As a result I worked hard to make my own way. But I had advantages, and I took those advantages for granted - and grew up convinced that everything I worked hard for was earned.

So to know that there is a mana pulling me into a relationship that I cannot equalize is a hard one for me to accept. I want to be on equal footing.  I want to be able to stand on my own two feet.  Bootstraps are my friend.

But that is not the nature of grace.  It is a gift.  We accept, or we don't accept.  Makes no difference. The gift is still offered.

I would probably be more comfortable with a requirement to 'pay it forward', because then I would be able to reduce the debt.  But there is no quid pro quo.  We are given the gift.  And without any strings, we have the opportunity to do good for others, sharing the good news.

I struggle with this part of my faith.

If I struggle with accepting a gift I have not earned, how can I not empathize with someone who struggles with being on the receiving end of charity?  How do I not recognize the feeling of the father who leaves the room when his family is visited by "Santa" from the local church?

And how do I not use it as an opportunity to demonstrate the nature of the Kula Ring - that we continue to give (clockwise?) the gift we have received?  It is not a permanent inequality, because the debt relationship has been removed.

The only response I can have at this point is to look up to the sky (or wherever heaven is...), and say, "Thank you." And go, and do likewise.

I think I'll go and get started writing those Christmas cards. 

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