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EDGE WISE: What’s in a gift? Considering generosity in the holiday season

Since joining the Generosity Economy, I’ve been spending less money — especially on food and clothing. But I’ve also changed the way I approach purchasing things in general. I think longer before simply buying something new, asking myself, Do I really need this thing? How much is it worth to me? Is this something my community can provide?

Every year around the holidays, I stress about the endeavor of buying presents — about spending money that I may or may not have at the time, about picking things out that the person is actually going to want or need and not just shove in a closet or throw away, and about contributing to businesses and industries that are unsustainable or unjust. But I also really enjoy giving nice gifts to people I love, especially if it’s the perfect thing. It’s that feeling of obligation to give and to buy that seems so insidious.

Generosity Economy members having a gardening workday. Photograph courtesy Maia Conty.
Generosity Economy members having a gardening workday. Photograph courtesy Maia Conty.

Over the last eight months, I’ve been part of a group of about forty other people engaged in an economic experiment in mutual support and gifting. The project is called the Generosity Economy, and through it we have been exploring ways of untangling the two forces of consumerism and generosity, recognizing that, as Charles Eisenstein notes in his book Sacred Economics, generosity is a powerful human impulse, artificially constrained by money and the way we relate to it. Gift giving does not need to be (and should not be) rooted in consumerism. It can happen all the time — it is a way of being, all year round.

Started a year ago by Maia Conty and Amy Warner, the Generosity Economy now consists of two circles of people, with a third forming, that meet every other week to identify personal and community needs and wants as well as the gifts — resources, tools, skills, time — we can offer to each other. These gifts have been as varied as childcare; furniture; local produce, meat, and dairy; help creating a website, stacking firewood, or weeding a garden; healthcare; and even a place to live.

A meal made by Krysia Andrews for GEC members after a day spent working at her herb farm. Photograph courtesy the Generosity Economy
A meal made by Krysia Andrews for GEC members after a day spent working at her herb farm. Photograph courtesy the Generosity Economy

Related to new economics, the sharing economy, bartering, and other alternative economic practices, the Generosity Economy is a way of building new pathways of wealth and value, primarily without using money. It depends on the fact that there is already a wealth of material goods, tools, and skills within our community. By strengthening relationships, interdependence, and trust, we can transform the way we meet our wants and needs, “demonetizing” as many aspects of life as possible. We can share skills or give things that we have and don’t need or don’t use often — we don’t have to buy everything. People have long lived in gift-based societies, (and in some places still do), and we have been experimenting with ways to bring the practice back into the mainstream.

Since joining, I’ve been spending less money — especially on food and clothing. But I’ve also changed the way I approach purchasing things in general. I think longer before simply buying something new, asking myself, Do I really need this thing? How much is it worth to me? Is this something my community can provide? I really needed a bucket last summer, and could have easily bought one at the hardware store, but put it off. Once I joined the Generosity Economy I was glad I hadn’t — someone gave one to me almost as soon as I thought to ask for one. Small in the scope of gifts given within this group, it was exactly what I happened to need, and helped me to see the surplus of stuff lying around that simply needs a little infrastructure to get it back in use.

Cabbage given to the Generosity Economy by Chubby Bunny Farm, Photograph courtesy the Generosity Economy
Cabbage given to the Generosity Economy by Chubby Bunny Farm, Photograph courtesy the Generosity Economy

We’re all still figuring out how the Generosity Economy applies to the holidays. It’s one thing to cut money out within our little group, but we still have to contend with certain expectations and decide how we want to give to our families and friends. How do you avoid being that person in the family who’s the obnoxious one always making a statement about something or other? (Okay, maybe I don’t really mind being that person, but I also don’t want to alienate my family.) People have a very specific sense of what the holidays are supposed to be like, a story that our culture tells every year about gifting. So how do you try to tell a different story?

We know there’s something disturbing about camping outside of a big box store on Thanksgiving to buy cheap goods from businesses that don’t pay their employees enough money to live on. And there’s a growing understanding of the troubling moral problems built in to the excessive consumerism of the “holiday season” (and the rest of the year for that matter) and of the connection between debt, the exploitation of workers, racism, overconsumption, and the valuing of stuff over relationships.

Fermented Kraut made by the Generosity Economy with the cabbage, Photograph courtesy Michelle Kaplan
Fermented Kraut made by the Generosity Economy with the cabbage, Photograph courtesy Michelle Kaplan

There are simple changes we can make in the ways we acquire “gifts” — just before the holidays this year one family in the group held a “stuff swap,” a chance to get rid of and find new/old free things. You could also decide not to spend money and only give homemade gifts, or give your time to someone. Cook a meal, help with a chore, or if it’s someone you don’t see a lot, literally just make an effort to spend time with them. Changing the way you “give” to a person involves changing the relationship itself.

It also means giving without expectation of immediate return or exchange, giving for the joy of it. One of the most important lessons learned in the Generosity Economy is to give from a place of abundance. If you don’t have the time, energy, or money to give something and you try to give it anyway, it becomes a burden instead of a gift (for you and them). Give something you have a lot or enough of, something that makes you happy to give. Maybe that’s what the world needs from you anyway.

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khewitt2Kristen Hewitt is an Assistant Editor at Orion magazine where she has worked for the last four years. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, after graduating from Bates College. Her writing has appeared in Terrain.org, Orion, and the Farmers’ Almanac. She lives in Great Barrington. Anyone interested in getting involved in the Generosity Economy project can contact her at kristenhewitt2@gmail.com.

Author photoThe weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.

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