The Alchemy of Gift
Dec 12 2019
What might an analysis of gift streams tell us about the development of human consciousness in the 21st century in the United States?
The experience of giving and receiving makes it clear that gifting has profound meaning in and through human connections; these connections constitute culture. Thus, the health of culture would be an indicator of the quality rather quantity of the gift stream. What may be less clear and equally important is how necessary and meaningful gift is to the quality of real economic life in the U.S. as it has evolved in our time, in the context of capitalism. This latter is evidenced in growing wealth disparity.
The value of gift, how a gift shows up in the economy, is future-centric; that is, it represents potential and appreciation rather than transactions, depreciation, and outcomes. While a gift may be measured in money, that measurement is momentary and transitional from the perspective of accounting and taxation. However, such measurement bears little relationship to the lasting value of the gift. This delocalized relationship between measure and value of gift is where the alchemy of transformation happens. Past is connected to future through the present, and cultural and economic life are entwined in the flow between time and space.
What is a gift? While a gift may have a physical or measurable presence, for example an object, time, talent, or money, its meaning lies in the intention of the giver to recognize the potential of the receiver to make value of the gift, and for the giver to relinquish control. At that moment of release, one more element of the alchemy of gift emerges, namely the liberation of the gift as capital. This assumes a certain openness on the part of the receiver to participate in a process of renewal that has both cultural and economic components. Of all the kinds of financial transactions, the gifting process has a unique capacity to link past, present, and future. Let’s use a monetary gift as an example. The giver has enough to give likely accrued from past activity, gives as a transaction at a particular moment to another who uses it into the future. So, for a gift to be a true gift, it must carry time as a unity in continuity.
Further, all parties to the gift are participating in a process that transcends ownership. From this perspective, a gift circulates into the future connected to and by human intentions but liberated from predicted outcomes. This is one aspect of the alchemy of gift and taps deeply into a level of community consciousness that eclipses the material and measurable.
Gifting is as natural to the human condition as a sense of caring, unless we are conditioned to think and behave otherwise. All movement in nature flows in reciprocity, in space and counter-space. Gravity has its levity; magnetic fields are animated by opposite poles. This concept is as relevant to giving as it is to the currency of water. To some degree double-entry bookkeeping recognizes this process in debits and credits. From a spatial perspective, we live in a one-world economy, a closed system in which every supply has a demand and every demand has a supply, and exchanges of goods and services are linked in circulation accounted for in money which in itself ages and is renewed. Life processes are everywhere. Reciprocity is a first principle rarely considered and not always immediately visible, especially in the mindset of scientific materialism.
Where the metaphysical nature of gifting operates in organic time, its transactional nature operates in the same conventional industrial time that renders interest, amortization, and depreciation schedules. Since gifts function outside of normative time, they also do not figure much in the context of economic discipline or finance. After all, circulation in space is harder to measure than accumulation over time. The convention is that if one accumulates or extracts enough, then gifting becomes possible. Historically this convention has arisen from a painful injustice in the system—the value and profit which arises out of the economic activity carried out by the working world community accrue primarily to individuals. There is no natural reciprocity in this structure, and therefore there is no way to right the injustice without a radical shift in the whole system. It isn’t just a matter of more gift.
“Gifting is as natural to the human condition as a sense of caring, unless we are conditioned to think and behave otherwise.”
First and foremost, I would like to propose that the conventional “transactional” framework that ignores gift needs revision. Economic life simply would not exist without gift. Without the circulation of gift, including the flow of healing intentions, care, and love, economies will not innovate or flourish anew. Instead, the system of debt burden and extractive investment will draw resources away from community as has been the case in the past.
A true gift contributes to repairing and preventing tears in the tapestry of social life, and we know that a stitch in time is what matters most. Such action results from one human being recognizing the needs and capacities of another. A gift does not judge the causes of the tears, but rather is a response to its presence. The giver is moved out of recognition of the consequences of the tear on wholeness and integrity—both their own and the world as it appears. The judgment that the giver makes is to relinquish the right to own capital. This is an imagination of the liberation of capital so that it can be renewed and of healing service into the future.
I would say that the degree to which a culture values and circulates gift, moves money out of private control to be active in the creative, inclusive commons and civil society, is a measure of the health of the soul of that culture. Despite the reality that the U.S. is one of the most philanthropic cultures in the world, such generosity masks a tremendous residual injustice between that which is privately controlled and that which flows as gift toward cultural renewal. This is not an argument over individual rights versus social rights. Rather it is an argument for centering gift and gifting at the heart of economic life, and, further, sounding and re-sounding the true value of gifting for much needed cultural renewal. Celebrating and enacting gift as the beginning rather than the end of the economic regeneration will move toward a more just and reciprocal world. And in the reciprocity lies the alchemy.
John is vice president of organizational culture at RSF.