The Relationship Between Gifts & Community

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Our readers are telling us they increasingly yearn for community. They say, "We don't want to live in a commodity world, where everything we have exists for the primary goal of profit. We want things created for love and beauty, things that connect us more deeply to the people around us. We desire to be interdependent, not independent."

The gift circle, referenced in Charles Einstein along with many other forms of gift economy that are emerging on the Internet, are ways of reclaiming human relationships. A Personal Safety Net (PSN) helps us look at the various ways in which people and organizations lend what they have to give to support us in our lives. Conversely, a PSN helps us identify ways in which we support others. Our human need to connect through gifts within community needs nurturing. Read on:

"Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is "community."

What happened to community, and why don't we have it any more? For some community is nearly impossible because community is woven from gifts, (not purchased with dollars). The layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs all contribute to the isolation people feel across economic levels. It is a dependence on purchasing things and services which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people.

If you are financially independent, then you really don't depend on your neighbors - or indeed on any specific person - for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it. I need someone to do their jobs, but not the unique individual people. They are replaceable and, by the same token, so am I.

That is one reason for the universally recognized superficiality of most social gatherings. How authentic can it be, when the unconscious knowledge, "I don't need you," lurks under the surface? When we get together to consume - food, drink, or entertainment - do we really draw on the gifts of anyone present? Anyone can consume. Intimacy comes from co-creation, not co-consumption, as anyone in a band can tell you, and it is different from liking or disliking someone.

To forge community then, we must do more than simply get people together. While that is a start, soon we get tired of just talking, and we want to do something, to create something. Community is woven from gifts. People in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a "circle of the gift."

We are poised at a critical moment of opportunity to reclaim gift culture, and therefore to build true community. The reclamation is part of a larger shift of human consciousness, a larger reunion with nature, earth, each other, and lost parts of ourselves. We are not actually independent or "financially secure" - we are just as dependent as before, only on strangers and impersonal institutions, and, as we are likely to soon discover, these institutions are quite fragile.

Alpha Lo, co-author of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, recommends building community through something called the Gift Circle.

  • The ideal number of participants in a gift circle is 10-20. Everyone sits in a circle, and takes turns saying one or two needs they have: "a ride to the airport next week," "someone to help remove a fence," "used lumber to build a garden," "a ladder to clean my gutter," "a bike," and "office furniture for a community center."
  • As each person shares, others in the circle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with suggestions of how to meet it.
  • When everyone has had their turn, they go around the circle again, each person stating something he or she would like to give.
  • Finally, the circle can do a third round in which people express gratitude for the things they received since the last meeting.
  • This round is extremely important because in community, the witnessing of others' generosity inspires generosity in those who witness it. It confirms that this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognized, and that my own gifts will be recognized, appreciated, and reciprocated as well.

Gift Circles: 1) reduce our dependence on the traditional market. If people give us things we need, then we needn't buy them; 2) reduces our production of waste; 3) hastens the demise of the present economic system in that any bit of nature or human relationship that we preserve is reclaimed from the commodity world."

This article was originally published in Shareable -- an online magazine that tells the story of sharing that covers people, places, and projects bringing a shareable world to life. Charles Eisenstein is a teacher, speaker, and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. We've edited it for space and content. Click to read Eisenstein's entire piece.

PSN Note: A few ideas related to circles aimed at reclaiming human relations and community that we're aware of include: Timebanking, Resiliency Circles, Common Security Clubs, and a variety of ideas featured in YES! Magazine.