Gift-Economy in a Time of Lack by Elisabeth S.

Carol Christ wrote about gift economy on this blog in 2013, and I am taken by her story of the woman who brought raisins or cracked nuts to the group even though she had very little. In beginning to encounter the literature on gift economy myself, I am wondering how it all works, especially wondering, perhaps outside of such a conversation if it doesn’t relate or misses the point, what someone who feels they have nothing to give can give.

When Genevieve Vaughan wrote about gift economy in Ms. Magazine in 1991, she wrote, “where there is enough, we can abundantly nurture others. The problem is that scarcity is usually the case, artificially created in order to maintain control, so that other-orientation becomes difficult and self-depleting.”

I think we start to look for other ways of existing when we experience the brokenness of a current existence. The exchange economy under mindless capitalism does not honor equal, fair exchanges. If we could keep from manipulating and being deceptive about what a product is worth, if we could more generously assess the contribution of workers, then some of us might not be bothered. Of course, for that work which is never compensated by money, mostly women’s work, that is the other issue that might not be solved by more equal exchange, and probably more the point of Vaughn’s.

That we have unfair, unequal exchange can be observed with dealings with the earth. The earth gives and is taken from but is not compensated or tended to equally. Vaughn writes, “It is said that the earth produces enough at present time to feed everyone abundantly.” Unequal distribution and taking from the earth unnecessarily and unmindfully manifests in “empowerment of the few and the disempowerment, depletion, death, and invisibility of the many.”

There seems to be a universal law about giving and growth that my students always find paradoxical when I bring it up in class, and it has one rendition in the gospels, i.e. Mark 4:25: “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

This comes from a text that I consider having a preferential stance toward the oppressed and non-privileged. So it is not really a message to those who are already working hard and giving. I see it more as a message for myself, currently feeling miserly and negative, having stress and illness, and hopelessness all bring me down, spiraling until I won’t be able to see anything. Gift economy and this universal law can really help someone like me in my current state because I need to be doing more. For those of you who are already doing many things, well, I’m not sure what the messages help, except and unless and until the dream of Vaughn is full-filled, that is when “the powerful will lay down their arms and the rich their goods.” The message of nurturing and giving must not be the message for those who already know and practice it. I suppose this is obvious.

I’m finding it hard to write this post, to produce something, but I am inspired by these messages because even though I am in the waiting period of finding a full-time academic job, I can think about what I do have space to create. Maybe I can help out more at my campus, hold a poetry creative writing workshop or offer to do some interfaith discussion conversations. I think the messages for me tell me to be inspired and creative. Right now, I’m sitting at my house, finishing up my online classes. They have meant so much to me, and my students said their lives were transformed, so they were very successful classes, but I will look forward to returning to campus this summer. But perhaps I can go beyond just being an adjunct this summer, and even if I don’t get a full-time job this fall, I can continue to do more on campus while adjuncting. We all need time to ourselves and monetary compensation for “bread and brew” as Beatrice Eli sings on her album. I am still trying to find work-life balance, but I need more of the work part now. Work that feels honorable and honors my experience and knowledge.

I am not the powerful, so I have no arms to lay down, and I am not the rich, so I have no goods. But at this moment, I need to save myself with more work and teaching can be the gift I give and do more of. Who will save our souls, Jewel sort of asks. We will, I can only think the answer must be.

I think a true gift feels life giving. If a gift feels difficult or hard, maybe that is because it is not the gift one can give. Maybe the gift that is life giving is speaking up and being honest about working conditions. Maybe it is the gift that gives another person opportunity to help you out. Perhaps it is the gift of your truth and your honesty when you usually hide it because you don’t want to make waves.

What is a gift you can give that feels necessary and life-giving? Do you think we need to switch to a gift economy or just fix the economy of immediate exchange by making it more fair, equal exchange? What is gift economy to you, in your eyes, and what special role do women play in it?

Elisabeth S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She has an MA in creative writing and teaches college composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. She also writes poetry about food, self-exile, the balance between love + freedom, and navigating the world while female. She has a micro-chapbook on food coming out 7/9/19 from Ghost City Press. 

Author: Elisabeth S.

Elisabeth S. has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University (2014) and teaches philosophy, literature, creative writing and composition in Colorado.

30 thoughts on “Gift-Economy in a Time of Lack by Elisabeth S.”

  1. Like you Lasche, I have been reading student papers. One of my ecofeminism students wrote about “the mother principle” as life-giving and life-sustaining. Our Mother Earth just keeps on giving and so do mothers who have not been warped too much by patriarchy. But in a reciprocal or gift-giving economy we give back to our mothers and our Mother Earth, we don’t just drain our mothers dry by taking without giving back.

    So what you say about thinking about what we can give back whether we have much or little is so important.

    Right now I am in a conflict situation with a student whose paper was not acceptable. Before confronting him, I thought: I bet most of his other professors just passed this kind of work on in order to make their own lives less stressful and easier. I didn’t and now am faced with an upset student and difficult choices.

    But, yes, I say, this is my gift as a teacher: I take my role seriously and don’t take the easy way out.

    I was discussing this situation with a colleague who opined that some of us really are smarter than others, concluding that some students just cannot produce good work, therefore she cuts them slack. I responded that I do not believe some of us are smarter than others and this is the reason I do not cut my students slack, but rather encourage them to believe they can all do good work. This too is my gift as a teacher and Goddess knows a lot of my students have been grateful that someone believed they “could do it.”

    But it doesn’t always make my life easier, siggghhh.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your comment, Carol. It is truly a gift to do the hard work and help students. I would rather have an honest assessment than people be quiet and just let me pass. I’ve always held, when I was in musical theatre, that I didn’t want a part others didn’t want me for because I wanted to perform well on stage. So in the long run, this student will be grateful, if not already.


    1. It is possible, but I’m not sure I have enough faith in the consciousness of humanity to say it is probable. That is why it is really important to give in ways that feels life-giving and as if that is all the gift we ever need. I like the idea about learning about our fears when we encounter others. I find that is very true for myself. I ask, why I am affected this way, with this instance? It must be very significant.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Lache S. I love that Ms.cover you shared today for one reason, and that’s the precious cat at the bottom of the scene, completely undisturbed by all the many-armed housework chores, etc. Indeed I want that lady to put down all her chores and challenges at least for a while and hug the kitty instead.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh yes that is a great gift cats give. Whenever I have a kitty in my lap I do my best not to get up for anything!


    2. I love your astute observation! Yes, the cat. Oh, they have ancient, magical healing powers, I feel. I look forward to having my own place one day so that I can adopt a cat.


  3. I love your essay because it reminds me that the web stays connected when we give without thinking, when it’s life giving. When we start to assess or judge our own talents, and maybe think we have nothing to give, or compare our gifts to others, well, that is when the heartbreak occurs. But when we give from the heart, without considering if it’s worthy, it all trickles back to us. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the heart and mind are connected. If we can quiet the mind, and listen from the heart, and do our own THANG, we give to the whole, and we get just what we need in return. And this is what I really think the Mark quote means. What special role do women play in this? I believe it is in creating a community like this, which empowers us to follow our hearts, because we know the truth lies there. Thank you for your fine essay.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, yes, the web and the heartbreak. Thank you so much for your thoughts and your kind words. I do also think that this space for our community is life giving. I look at all the comments, all the gifts of thoughts and words given in response, and I certainly feel nourished. Thank you for nourishing us.


  4. I resonate with Diane’s comments immediately in two ways.

    It’s been my experience in any size group or community of women that we look at the task or challenge at hand and each spontaneously offers the first thing they can do in response —with the result often being the situation which would have overwhelmed one of us has become absolutely nothing to bear in less than a minute and we all move on. The general feeling is always that spontaneous giving is a human predisposition and makes the world go around. That that is normal in a community (vs. competitive corporate) setting.

    The Mark passage reads to me also like code, the underlying message perhaps being that when one *feels* they have enough —at least for the present moment— grace will surround and generally protect; when one feels only lack at all times, then one will continue to feel that no matter what.

    I’m thinking, for example, of the very wealthy who somehow feel they need to accumulate even more, contrasted with the fellow I used to see living in a refrigerator box lined with a wall of books under an overpass in Long Island City, always sitting in a lawn chair reading (back in the early 80s). I know this is a very broad stroke and have often felt crushed by my own circumstances, but that doesn’t negate a nuanced individual reading of Mark 4:25 that is paradoxically empowering rather than/as well as cynical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like thinking of the Mark passage in code – yes! You have helped articulate this for us, thank you. It is about generating that energy, the hope and the belief and the love that grows. Energies all grow. Maybe that is what it says. All kinds of energies. Thank you.


  5. What a thoughtful inspiring post, Lache. I appreciate your reading of Mark 4:25 as having a preferential stance toward the oppressed and non-privileged. Makes more sense to me now and seems more resonant with Jesus’s life and character.

    I found myself wondering as I wandered around my yard, so lush and abundant in green and bloom, if noticing beauty and saying thank you is way of giving back the beloved earth who gives us everything.

    Wishing you joy in your ongoing work, abundant opportunities to teach, and many lucky students with you as their teacher.


    1. Thank you so much, Elizabeth. Your words nourish me. I absolutely think that seeing and attending to the lush beauty, just noticing, that is life giving both ways. I think if I were to do this more, it would inspire me. It is always helpful to have the earth on our minds and hearts. Thank you for your well wishes. That means so much to me.


  6. Lache, I think it is a necessity to look for other ways of being when we are faced with a global culture that is hell bent on distruction… We must, if we hope to survive.


    1. Indeed. I’m not even sure I care about surviving anymore, the human race or myself in general. I just want to restore what should be back to the universe and earth. Return the good energy, and make up for the destruction.


  7. Yes, thanks for your mention of the Gift Economy and Gen VAughan. I wonder if you know that there is SO much more of her work and others’ on the subject since then. Gen edited an anthology of papers given at Gift Economy conferences over the last two decades: Women and the Gift Economy. She also wrote her magnum opus, The Gift in the Heart of Language, published recently by Mimesis International. All this work is so important and needs to get out! thank you, Vicki Noble

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Yes, I am getting that idea as I just came across a post from her about 36 ways to practice and approach this, as well as a web site devoted to the ideas. I want to know more about it. Thank you for mentioning this wealth of information to us all.


  8. You hit a spot in my family history, Lache! Everything then was an exchange – you do this for me, I’ll do that for you. To me, that was never about gift-ing, which I don’t see as a part of economics. For me, a gift is free and without “strings”, given only with love. But I think society has a problem with that. I had to learn how to accept a gift graciously, it IS sometimes easier to give then to receive. That probably has something to do with power!

    Maybe that’s why we have a problem with welcoming the gifts of the Creator. This beautiful earth that we treat with such carelessness and even contempt for instance. Lots to think about. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In experiencing the gift economy in rural Crete I came to understand that reciprocity is at its heart, In this situation the theological idea of “free grace to the undeserving” does not intrude.One does not give with strings, neither does one give without expectation of reciprocity. It is a very different worldview in which one gives freely while at the same time knowing and trusting that others will give back, because this is “just the way things are.” In this situation giving is not sacrifice or completely unconditional. The conditions are built into the system because everyone knows and agrees that giving and giving back are they ways community is sustained and built.


      1. Moreover one does not thank Mother Earth in order to get more from her, but neither does one thank Her while accepting that Her grace is arbitrary and can been withdrawn at any time. Nor does one think of oneself as undeserving of gifts, it is understood that everyone is deserving of being taken care of by Mother Earth, mothers, and all others.


        1. “Moreover one does not thank Mother Earth in order to get more from her, but neither does one thank Her while accepting that Her grace is arbitrary and can been withdrawn at any time. Nor does one think of oneself as undeserving of gifts, it is understood that everyone is deserving of being taken care of by Mother Earth, mothers, and all others.”

          None of these thoughts crossed my mind. I look at the light coming through the trees, laugh at the blackbirds gobbling up the little green worms that fall from the maple tree leaves, at the old dog, Molly, who “lights up” and wags her tail when she sees Watson (my dog), at the marvels of ocean tides, marshland birds and turtles, the view of earth from space and of the universes seen from earth – and I feel gratitude and a love within creation.


        2. Thank you, again, Carol, for another point. To just focus on taking care of each other, this is much more preserving and sustaining than the other ways.


      2. We have gift exchanges where I live now. It’s not the same as what I referred to in my first comment, Carol. That was a situation where one gave help/money in exchange for commitment or favor. Where the “receiver” (my mother) was indebted to the other, and so were we. It felt more like slavery than community.


      3. Carol, do you see this reciprocity as more like “pay it forward” rather than the “strings attached” direct method? I do … like, I give to X and then X gives to Y etc. I mean, sure, sometimes we can see the one where I give to X and X gives back to me (within a certain time frame) but I see gifting and reciprocity in a more fluid way, more cyclical and non-linear. I receive food from Earth and I protect the wild woods near where I live, like that.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you so much for your comment, Darla. I know it wasn’t directed toward me, but I found it very inspiring. I think that to be good at seeing needs or making space to contribute, well, it can be an exchange when it happens to happen, but in gift-economy, as I understand it, there is no always, actual exchange.


          1. Yes Darla, it is not necessarily about being paid back or re-given by the same person. It is a flow, a way of life. That said, I just finished Leaving Mother Lake about the Mosuo and in one story the daughter returns for a visit, people bring gifts of food, and the recipient knows the same people will need to be given a return gift. Kind of like when a neighbor brings you a casserole and you return not just the dish but a dish of food.


      4. Yes, I think for people to truly not be taken advantage of, there does have to be this culture of a certain mindset – this just the way things are. I think that is how to avoid tragic stories of the women who give and never are taken care of back. Thank you for this point.


    2. Absolutely – I think you’ve really helped unfold some layers of this. I see two ways of being here, and I’m not sure what kind of cultures or mindsets that source them. But one way is to be suspicious or resentful of giving (so the gifts of the Creator) because we are worried we have to repay or owe. But this is the loss kind of energy that Mark is talking about. We don’t have much and we’re worried people will take from us, and so we never end up having much. To give because it is who we are and what we want to be, to think about giving first, somehow that gives us more. But I’m just growing into understanding all this and practicing it. I think it takes a very evolved person to be a giver. Thank you so much for these thoughts.


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