living the gift

       © 2015 Dylan Martin Photography

      © 2015 Dylan Martin Photography

so there it was, as clear to me as the starlit nights of dry season, that somewhere between borrowed cars and hitchhiking on the freeway, i was really doing it. i was living and being the gift.

it dawned on me today, as i poached a girl friend's wi-fi from her front porch, that for the past few months, i've been living an experiment of the gift economy. well, at least living it halfway, anyway. as much as reasonable life in modern society allows. i haven't given up money altogether, and i still go out to dinner. and every now and then, i catch myself buying things for the sake of buying things, despite the ensuing self-inflicted consumer shame that's sure to follow. but i will give myself some credit; i've truly made an effort to live the gift, to experience life through the lens of giving, both out of sheer necessity and a deep desire to contribute to the lives of those around me, knowing that helping one another meet our needs by giving freely of our gifts, assets and skills, brings us closer to living full lives of shared happiness and collective wellbeing. the kinda stuff diverse, robust, post-capitalist, non-consumerist economies are made of. the places and spaces i want to be a part of and help create, today and now.

i teach about it in class as we discuss sustainable socioeconomic futures, in awe of those brave enough to embrace the gift economy, yet i've never been all the way sure about how it really works, or how i could apply it in my own life. what if my gifts aren't good enough? and what if my needs aren't met through the gifts of others? won't people just take advantage of me giving things away for free all the time? i envisioned living the gift as a leap of faith i wasn't quite ready for, fearful in trusting that a hand that gives is never empty. i had no clue where to start. and i worried how people would respond. but despite cold feet and unsure of what i could possibly give that might be of value in the gift economy, somewhere between borrowed cars and hitch-hiking on the freeway, clouds of doubt faded into openness, curiousity and excitement, however vulnerable, on my horizon. 

in their beautiful book, Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, authors Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze explain the gift economy as 'the antidote to our ubiquitous transactional culture that has turned the accumulation of material resources into a near-sacred pursuit the world over.' instead, the gift economy is built on the idea that a life worth living is one in which we seek to give of our gifts rather than to have our needs met. this entails a fundamental shift in our approach to goods and services, needs, wants, having, getting, and even being; in other words, re-assessing the sorts of things and experiences we value as important in our lives, and re-imagining the means we employ to attain them. the gift economy transforms the ways we relate to money, consumption, surplus, our communities and networks.

often, we think of the economy in terms of money and exchange value - what i can get in return for paying a certain amount, or exchanging what i have for something i want or need of an equivalent value. this is often how we're taught and conditioned to engage with the market, within our communities, and increasingly among friends, family, and even within ourselves. we 'value' that which we can price in monetary terms of exchange, such that a yoga teacher might charge $75 for a private class, and a transpersonal psychologist may price her services at $50 per hour. a piece of jewelry might sell for $150, and a bottle of non-GMO, organic hot-sauce could go for $10. while those prices may reflect an exchange value determined by (an often superficially stimulated) supply-and-demand of the market, they fail to honor the unquantifiable: the heartful passion and sacred gifts of those whose goods and services are being sold or exchanged. and valuing our time, energy, spiritual wisdom, creativity, and joy that go into producing the things and experiences we choose to share with the world by giving them a price, often degrades both that which we have to offer, as well as our connection to ourselves and those around us, in the process.

we and our gifts become a thing to be bought and sold, valuable only for the price at which they will sell, or for what we might get in exchange. and when we start valuing ourselves and our gifts in this way, the meaning we once found in doing what we love to do, just for the sake of doing it and sharing it, is often lost in the shuffle. now we only do it if someone will pay for it, or if we can trade it. and we are left to wonder why we feel so sadly unfulfilled, entire communities commodified into cultures of transaction in the process.

differently, and inspiringly, the gift economy believes in the plain-old simplicity of valuing something because we love it, because it's useful to us, or because we couldn't imagine living without it. Marx called this use-value, and it's at the heart of living in the gift. things and experiences with use-value hold intrinsic worth, regardless of what they might be exchanged for if traded or sold.

like the presence of peace felt among the yoga teacher's students after he guides them through their meditative savasana. or the moment when, through tears, the psychologist's patient recognizes the unhealthy relationship patterns transferred to her from her parents and finds ways to transform them before it's too late. or perhaps the jeweler's smile seeing the muted lustre of her well-made obsidian pendant finding its new home around the neck of a healer, who draws from its sacred strength, to bring wellness to those he treats. or a natural chef's satisfaction knowing he brings safe, healthy, quality ingredients to the kitchens and communities whose tastebuds bask in the spice of his carefully blended concoctions.

these are the types of economic relationships that live in the gift economy. where we give of our selves, our passions and talents freely because it makes our hearts sing, and knowing we've contributed in some small way to the lives of others brings a contentment money could never buy. use-value in the gift economy brings the poetry, the meaning, the connection, the shared wellbeing back into our lives. the sorts of things that make life worth living.

and in practicing the gift, unknowingly at first, i began to remember what that feels like.

life-giving communities. image: edwin padilla

life-giving communities. image: edwin padilla

since November, when i returned to Costa Rica from a writing stint in San Diego, i had been car-less and without a home to call my own. bouncing between couches, buses, taxis and spare bedrooms, i taught three masters' level university courses in two countries, launched my new website, published a few stories, and managed a surprising number of surf trips, among quality time spent with family and friends, hiking jungles, waterfalls and volcanoes, dancing to the moon, crying over spilt milk, and frequently celebrating life with delicious food and live music past midnight. in a word or two, i was living well. in gratitude, i reflected on choice, circumstance and good fortune, aware enough of my own socio-racial privilege, and that of my close friends-and-family circle taking care of me, to know i live a ridiculously blessed life. and thanks to the ability to share of my own cultivated gifts and natural-born talents, and to receive the gifts of those around me, my life felt beautiful.

eventually, i settled into a home where i actually paid rent for the first time in nearly a year. a space of my own that i couldn't wait to share. i'd leave for a weekend and be sure there was someone to fill my empty bed; i'd get a message or a visit from a guest i was mostly excited, although sometimes hesitant, to accept. new friends, German friends-of-friends, not-so-welcome-after-all friends, they all stayed. and i loved being the one to gift a bed, a meal, a couch, a roof, a fridge... for a change. and when i realized i somehow had more money in my bank account than i'd ever managed to save on purpose, now that i was getting paid just for living my dreams and doing the work i'd happily do for free, i felt guilty. in a good way. and i just wanted to give.

i felt true joy in being in a position to share, especially since i had often been on the receiving end of things in my modern-day nomad lifestyle-turned-reality. and that didn't always feel comfortable. so give, i did. surf boards, watermelon, stories, sushi dinners, writing help for friends' websites, empathy, after-surf smoothies, participatory workshops, gas money, pool parties, swim lessons, donations for strangers' hospital bills, clothing, poems, small gifts of appreciation. giving became both a means and an end to my own selfish joy. it was my own personal gift-giving frenzy, and i couldn't get enough.

that was the half of it that always felt good: giving. sometimes i'd be paid for my gifts in money or in-kind, but often i wasn't, and those were the gifts i liked to give best. that part of living the gift economy came easy

but the real experiment came full circle when i began to recognize how the universe and its beautiful inhabitants conspired to shower me with their own gifts, fulfilling needs and dreams i barely knew i had. and when i learned to accept those gifts, and to see them as gifts, it was as if a whole new world of economic interaction opened in front of me. the kind of world where capitalist economic logic rarely made sense and became increasingly irrelevant in powerfully transformative ways. the kind of world where i learned to value relationships, people and my communities for their everyday contributions to our collective wellbeing, and where i learned to value my own gifts in terms i had never been taught to see.

at the time, my greatest need in every-day life was a ride. a ride to surf in the morning. a ride to the grocery store and to pay my electric bill. a ride to the University for Peace so i could get to class on time to teach it. asking for a ride, for the thing i needed most, provoked an anxiety in me i seldom knew. it represented everything i didn't want to feel; everything we're taught not to be: dependent, stuck, reliant, needy, poor, scared, not in control, asking for help. anxious as all hell in a world where you're supposed to have it all figured out, not needin' nothin' from nobody, there i was. needing a ride like the rest of 'em, always with their hand out lookin' for somethin'. i'd leave my apartment in the morning, walking with my board along the dirt road in my bikini, mustering the courage to wave my thumb in the direction of cars as they approached. often, i'd swallow puffs of their dust as they drove on by. sometimes i'd walk the whole twenty minutes to the beach, and no one would stop. not one little soul. especially the fancy SUVs, they never stopped. in fact, they wouldn't even look. but why would they? sadly, they belong to a different world. i didn't mind the walk; in fact, i grew to love it. yet somehow and still, it left a bad taste in my mouth. and it wasn't just the dirt.

some days were different. some days, i'd barely step off the driveway and someone would stop - a friend en route to waves, a stranger headed into town with an extra seat or two for my board and me, a pick-up truck with a dog and a few bags of cement ushering me to hop on up. some days, i wouldn't even have to ask. i'd just be walking along and a sparsely-toothed old guy in a run-down Ford would slow to a stop, ask me where i'm headed and offer me a ride like nothing. and we'd talk about his puppy and what the town used to be like before tourists showed up, and where my sister lives and why my Spanish is so good. some days, like those days, were magic.


once, a friend let me borrow her car to appease a man i couldn't stand on a week-long surf trip up north. she borrowed my bike while i surfed off-shore perfection and tour-guided a dud of a dude i couldn't wait to ditch. he was a gift i definitely didn't want, but probably one i needed. everytime he spoke, in the discomfort of my crawling skin, he gifted me with a tolerance i had no clue i was capable of. a tolerance i had to pray to find deep inside me so i wouldn't scream and run away, or worse. somewhere in me, i found it in my heart to be glad he had a good time. and it felt alright knowing i contributed a little bit to that. and i learned to appreciate his unwanted gift. even when i wished he was dead.

one time, i even got a ride from the head of the consular department of the Russian embassy. we exchanged business cards, i pointed him in the right direction back to San Jose and told him i'd put him in touch with the right people at UPeace to plan an activity commemorating Russia's contribution to ending WWII, and that i'd help him get a surf lesson the next time he made it to the beach. he gifted me a safe ride to the bus stop; and i gifted him the promise to help him do the things that might bring satisfaction, joy and deeper meaning to his life.  

embracing each ride as a gift from the driver of the car that got me from point a to point b, i learned how asking for help, and relying on the gifts of others is a powerful way to build community. i felt honored each time some one would recognize my need and do what they could to fulfill it by giving something as simple as a ride to a friend or stranger on the journey. in the process, we'd learn something about one another and share moments of connection that have otherwise become increasingly rare, even among friends. receiving the gift of a ride opened my eyes to the wisdom in the gift economy as a driver for true social change.

the final revelation came, however, when out of sheer desperation on a Friday afternoon, i found myself hitchhiking on the freeway. it was either that or waste four hours on the bus when i could be surfing before sunset. desperate times called for desperate measures. so there i was, every father's greatest nightmare for his white, middle-class daughter, standing on the median with my thumb out, praying this wasn't the biggest mistake of my life. ten minutes in, and probably a few hundred cars later, the best i'd gotten were a few honks and pervy comments, but no ride. the bus was starting to look pretty good right about now. and i wondered why no one stopped. is it because no one in their right mind hitch-hikes on the freeway? and the drivers were as scared of me as i was of them?

finally, after what felt like forever, a rundown forest-green sedan slowed to a hurried stop and the middle-aged man inside offered me a ride. he was only going about twenty kilometers or so, but he'd be happy to take me that far, he said. hesitant, i accepted, and hoped he wasn't hoping i was a prostitute. either way, he hid his disappointment well. we chatted about his daughters and my work until he dropped me just before his exit, and i emotionally prepared for the next round of freeway hitchin'.

lucky for me, it was the second car that stopped this time - a touristless tourism van on its way south, just past where i was headed. Manuel, a heavy-set Nicaraguan man with a gentle voice and dark skin would be my chauffeur for the next hour and change. in our idle chatter, mostly listening as he shared his worries about life, relationships, his family and work, i offered empathy and seemingly welcome companionship on an otherwise monotonous drive. and in those unexpected moments, i realized that in listening and just being there in his often empty passenger seat, i was as much a gift to Manuel as he was to me. that i needed a ride as much as he needed someone to listen. and in overcoming my fear of the socially unacceptable practice of hitch-hiking on the freeway, accepting instead the vulnerability in my moment of need by choosing to trust in the good of people, i found myself serendipitously contributing to a stranger's need for connection, camaraderie and compassion. and in that happenstance space of gifting and receiving, of acknowledging needs and finding unexpected ways to help one another in the process, i believe we were both the better for it.

as he dropped me at the gas station with my backpack and bag of fruit, we said our goodbyes, grateful for having met. and after not having been chopped into pieces by a serial killer on my freeway hitch-hiking escapade, i felt a deeply renewed sense of faith in humanity, a great trust that people are decent and want to give when they can, despite the taboos placed on giving in a socio-economic culture that only values greed and accumulation. i learned that in gifting what we can and trusting one another with our needs, we transform the hegemonic economic logic that keeps us trapped in a lonely individualism, which teaches us to believe that more for me has to mean less for you. in living the gift, we learn that giving is having, and needing is both being and believing.

so there it was, as clear to me as the starlit nights of dry season, that somewhere between borrowed cars and hitchhiking on the freeway, i was really doing it. i was living and being the gift.

as in the communities and lives of the people in the rundown cars with heart enough to stop for me because they know what it's like to live without and to rely on others, solidarity economies live the gift because they have to. and as otherwise non-desperate people now increasingly desperate to live the change we know a more beautiful world requires, it's our challenge to live the gift because we want to. because we know in our hearts its what matters in the types of lives we want to live.   

image: @anneka.lane

image: @anneka.lane

so i dare you. i dare you to be that generous to others, that vulnerable to your own needs. i dare you to give freely of your gifts from a place of love and wisdom, embracing the logic of the gift economy as a true means of transforming unsustainable, consumer driven systems from the inside out. i dare you to feel that free. to remember the joys of your own creativity, the everyday adventure of the people and experiences that living the gift brings into your life each and every single day.

instead of saying 'i deserve to be paid for my time and hard work' - the gift says 'i've worked really hard on this, and i've spent a lot of time and energy on it, and i give it to you because i know you will cherish it, and honor it for the pieces of myself that it carries with it; from my heart to yours.' and instead of saying 'i at least deserve to get something in return, it's only fair', the gift says 'i give with no intention of receiving in exchange, truly content in knowing that giving is getting, while hoping that the receiver of my gift, will share of his unique gifts with those who need them, and through the collective magic of the gift economy, i, in turn, will always have what i need. if you think about it, we live the gift in myriad ways each and every day. and when we train ourselves to see our experiences as gifts given and received, we find gifts in people, places, things and moments we might otherwise let slip on by.

the gift economy defies the fear-driven logic we've been taught to know as real, yes. but it holds worlds of possibility we'll only know when we're brave enough to try.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze leave us with powerful questions, urging us to find the courage and trust to imagine our lives through the lens of gift-giving and gift-receiving:

'are you willing to make yourself this vulnerable? to trust that someone, somewhere will provide? can you give yourself over to a rhythm that is determined by the people you meet, the places you journey, and the experiences you participate in? can you be this trusting of life?'

i believe that if we're willing to give it a try, if we're willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown, we may very well find that living the gift is what we're here to do. that the gift is everywhere.

... that living the gift is actually the meaning of life.