In the words of cultural critic Lewis Hyde:
The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Social nature abhors a vacuum.
I often travel to Greece, a country currently buried in debt and entering is sixth year of financial crisis (in fact, I’m in Athens’ troubled Kerameikos district as I write this). Yet here, despite high youth unemployment, a rising right wing, and inner-city squalor, there exists amongst most normal Greeks an astounding generosity of spirit. It has nothing to do with money.
On streets and squares in Athens or any island town, people sit around, talk, maybe play backgammon. To someone from the Northwestern world, it looks like laziness, but here is, perhaps, the modern echo of the agora; a physical or metaphorical place where not only ideas but nonmonetary values (community, the commons, basic human warmth and interaction) are exchanged.
At a Greek restaurant, everyone shares everything. Meet one or two Greeks, and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by new friends. You hear stories of Greek teachers or other civil servants whose salaries have been halved. How can they live? By joining forces – family or friends sharing resources in ways many more industrialized countries have forgotten. Stories of nepotism can be turned around and looked at from another perspective ... in a society in which friends and family are so important, why on earth would younot give your friend or family member a job?
In many ancient (and currently a few non-western) societies, the rich person is not the hoarder but the person who sends the most energy, be it money or goods, moving through the system. Paying it forward; a gift economy, not a debt economy. Circulation, not accumulation, giving without expecting anything directly in return, but knowing that abundance always appears when space has been created for it.
Many years ago, on a Cycladic island that’s now trendy, a wizened old man approached me on a then-empty beach and held out his hand. In it was something I’d never seen before. He smiled a toothless smile, and gestured for me to take it. He was offering me my first fresh fig. We have forgotten how to give, unabashedly and unafraid. We are indoctrinated to think we can exist beyond community, that we are independent of each other and nature. We are trained to be wary of the pure gift, to not give too much, to assume a deficit, and regard nearly every exchange with a “what’s in it for me.” What was in it for me? The heady succulence of a fig straight off the tree. For him? The pleasure of giving, and seeing my delight. Had he asked for money, the exchange would have been entirely different, and I wouldn’t be remembering this now. What and who is rich? What and who is poor?