Thursday, December 19, 2013

Giving back: revisited

Back in November, outfitted in my semantic warrior armor I went into battle with the evils underlying the expression--give back.

I hit the nail on the head several times and yet I left so much unsettled. In my fervor to expunge the demon behind the words I did not go nearly far enough. Here is the rest of it:

For some time now I've been searching for some universal principle for how humans might better process their understanding of how to live well in this world. There are many a man-made mechanism to choose from as the founding causal agent of so much grief. The whole idea of worthiness and legal tender gets awfully murky and no more so than the words we use to deflect these entanglements.

So I kept moving these words over in my mind like a worry stone. Take from/give back, take from/give back, take from/give back.

What got me started down a satisfying, civilized path was a quip I made on Facebook last year. It was an observation I made about how differently a person is viewed in that time between birth and death. At birth we are welcomed into the world as a bundle of joy. It is expected that for our growth and development we must take nourishment from those who brought us here. Already the fluid line between giving and taking begins to define itself. Rather than continuing to work from inside this originating mentality of love and acceptance, it is made clear that at some point as one comes of age a break must occur and your taking from is now considered an evil dependence. A rite of passage celebrates the time when you will start learning all the many ways in which you must give back, because surely you will want to show how grateful you are for all the blessings bestowed upon you from birth.

So, dear human, you have just officially been outed. There is, in fact, nothing that you will give without incurring debt, not even life itself. Thus begins the cascade of corrective measures we spend a lifetime perfecting. If we're doing it right, we make our own way in the world. If we are careful we can even save for the future and willingly incur debt without fear. If, on the other hand, we are dealt a setback of immediate consequences we may need to accept charity, a word so heavily burdened with reluctant significance that even the depression era bum angrily spouts: "I don't accept charity."

I remember an old roommate once proudly claiming: "I've never been so poor that I couldn't leave town."

Everyone, it seems, has a story about their pride in surviving, winning, thriving, and doing it on as little as possible. I don't mind the applause. I love a great story. But avoiding material poverty isn't an honest method for inducing pride.

What would it be like if we could flip this coin? 

What if the bundle of joy attitude could last your whole life? I'm convinced that we fail to question ourselves about these ideas because we can't admit to our own self-hatred. There seems to be an inherent impulse toward self-loathing and distrust. Do we really believe that without a governance based on the fear of punishment that all humanity would simply run amok? And yet what is the belief in original sin but precisely that? 

If the life-long messages a person was bathed in were ones of love and acceptance even in the face of mistake or wrong doing, how different would the world be? How would this be tied to exchange and legal tender? Instead of every man for himself amid a hierarchy of social classes, what if groups tried to outdo each other in competitions of generosity? It does sound like I'm veering off into la-la land.

In order to make this fundamental change we couldn't even take our cues from the world around us. This is because from the animals we get the pack, the herd mentality and the pecking order--all hierarchies. Humans have never evolved a more effective social structure than what animal nature provides. We accepted it by default. Most of the greatest advice from one human to another is all about overcoming or coping with what is rather than creating what should be. Thus we perpetuate a learned helplessness about our own nature. Such is the burden of intellect and wisdom when confronting base animal instincts. We can describe and prescribe what should be done, but the realization of our emotional ideals remains ever illusive. 

How do we stay in the lofty spaces of our higher selves? Even if we can agree on what they are, protection and self-defense are powerful forces always ready to create a buffer for us. 

Only two choices

I've always been fascinated with the claim that ultimately there are only two emotions: fear and love. You'd have to admit that humanity has never managed to evolve away from fear and move closer to love. 

But this IS the era of the twenty-first century citizen, is it not? If not now, when? 

'Tis the season after all, the one time of the year when we are enticed to believe that another world is possible, but only temporarily, perhaps as a way to allow us safe passage into the new year. 

And with that, dear reader, this citizen is signing off for the year and wishing you a winter full of love. 

'til next year...

Ciao bella,


  1. An Internet ExplorerDecember 26, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Then again, maybe the human race really was created in God's image, which means God is a selfish, hedonistic, horny, warmongering, petty, duplicitous, back-stabbing gossip who loves junk food, reality shows, and really bad pop music. That would explain a lot, unfortunately.

  2. I'd like to say something relatively intelligent if only I could stop laughing long enough to do it. :)