Self/other

Knockbacks of various sorts have a nasty spreading effect, as doubts creep in and confidence wanes. Something small that you have committed yourself to, which doesn’t work out, can colour the rest of the day. The feeling of hopelessness can spread if you have too little to do, and therefore the time to brood, which I do at the moment as I am jobless and without enough to keep myself busy.

I often struggle emotionally when I’m underoccupied. I suspect that it’s also why some very elderly people appear to lose interest in living towards the end, as physical frailty becomes a consuming reality, and prevents them from getting on with whatever they consider their work to be.  Working on something, doing a good job, having a project, or solving even a trivial problem, can be a consolation: “Whatever else is happening, I achieved this today.”

This feeling is not always associated with work as such: it can come from performing some small act of thoughtfulness for another and enjoying the approbation that follows. If, like me, you are someone who is used to being busy, to working for and with others, the feeling of self-respect that comes from playing your part can be very hard to replace through one’s own activities. On some level, we yearn for social approval, and to feel ourselves to be ‘good’, dependable people who can be trusted to discharge our responsibilities towards others. And we torment ourselves when circumstance takes this feeling away from us. Hence the way that my very elderly grandmother used to sometimes complain of ‘feeling useless’: not in pain, not depressed, not fed up, but of no use.

I tend to think this has to do with the socialisation we go through as we grow from infancy through childhood into adulthood. The ability of very small children to be utterly absorbed in their own thoughts is very striking. They do not go about troubled by the difference between what they are and what they feel they might or should be; instead, they just are. The urge to define ourselves socially, in relation to our responsibilities to others, comes later, helped along by the injunctions of our parents to ‘be good’, and by various experiences like school, which serve to position us in groups of all kinds.

Recognising our need for the approval of others has to be balanced against the fact that we are still what we are, with our own needs to think about too. Part of being a social animal is having to reconcile these two things. Perhaps you, like me, have had the experience of feeling taken for granted, when you are offering up more of yourself than is being recognised. It can happen in any relationship: with the teacher whose favourites are not ourselves; with the boss who doesn’t notice our hard work; with the lover who takes and never gives. This leads to a feeling of resentment and can lead us to tear up our ties to others, to walk away rather than holding on. The world is full of people who feel this resentment keenly, who fall out with friends, who leave jobs, who seem restless.

It seems to me that the ability to hold these two things in balance is a major component of sanity, though the point where the balance pivots is different in every person. For some of us, nurturing resentment comes easily, and we cut ties without much thought, in order to preserve our own sense of ourselves as people who don’t stand for any ill-treatment from others. Yet there are others – we all know them – whose commitment to a social role is so strong that we marvel at how they do it. For me, this prompts the reflection that people whom it would be easy to dismiss as ‘walkovers’ often display immense strength simply by continuing in their commitments to others.

Image: Timothy Takemoto via Flickr

Streaming

From the train that passed along the quays and between the skyscrapers, he saw the ticker every day, the headlines from the wires scrolling around, bringing summaries in a dozen words of the day’s happenings, keeping the surroundings informed. Sometimes it appeared that it was arguing with itself, failing to impose order on the world it beheld:

‘Suicide bomber kills at least ten in north western Pakistan —– Suicide bomber kills at least five in north western Pakistan —– Suspected suicide bomber kills five in north western Pakistan’.

At other times, headlines shorn of stories would pass silently by, conveying nothing except, occasionally, a vague sense of surreality:

‘WORLD NEWS FROM REUTERS —– Brexit would “spoil everything” – Cameron —– Fukushima’s Ground Zero – No Place for Man or Robot’.

Anyone who saw it saw it in passing: looked up from a book or from thumbing a phone, noticed a headline, went back to their own distractions while the train passed overhead. Sometimes, he would be aware of the angry light it cast on the shiny surfaces of the facing tower, apprehend the movement of the letters but pay no attention. Who was it for? The people in the offices couldn’t see it, and in any case had their own screens to turn their suppositions about the meaning of events into bumps and dips in a bottom line.

Once, passing that way on a Saturday, the plazas below filled with shoppers and the development’s absurdly-uniformed security guards, he looked at the towers and saw the lightless windows of a few offices, gappy between the pointless weekend glow of empty offices with the lights left on. He saw, too, that the ticker, was glitching while it scrolled, broadcasting a jagged stream of news and nonsense:

‘Tesco reports prof     $&”(^ ng as acc*(T^&E% to City’.

On Sunday, the silent ticker had been silenced completely: no broken reflections of its smooth LEDs in the cold water of the dock below, no reassuring right-to-left passage of events. Its silence made the movement of the few people below seem choppy and chaotic.

Its absence brought home the strangeness of its daily presence, and he reflected that he did not know why it was there at all. It offered no context or explanation, and nobody paid it a moment’s thought. Insistent and shallow, it silently informed him that he must be informed, that its selected flow of events was what mattered in the world, that these were things worth reacting to. Among the avenues of glass and steel in the business district, it declared that he would be fed what he needed, interpreting nothing, meaning nothing. The headlines rendered the world as a constant stream of ephemera passing over sixty feet of building, before disappearing with no one the wiser, leaving only the remote sense that the immediacy of their own lives was of no moment.

Photo credit: Ben Jeffrey via Flickr

Looking back

A couple of weeks ago I performed a little annual ritual: putting all my Christmas cards in a shoebox, and taking the chance to have a leaf through the box’s older contents. It’s a little saunter around the Museum of Me. And not all of it is nice: a letter here or there from someone I fell out with or treated badly; funeral orders of service and an obituary cutting. These made me sad, though I’m glad I’ve never yet succumbed to the annual temptation to throw some away – it seems important to hang onto the ones that remind me of bad things, just as much as the ones that remind me of good.

But there are also letters from former pupils expressing thanks, leaving cards from jobs I barely remember with heartfelt good wishes from names I can barely match to a face, and slips of paper on which people wrote puns or jokes. In a similar moment of tidying and sorting, I found my grandfather’s old hip flask in the kitchen cupboard – something I’d forgotten I had at all. When I opened its box, out fell two slips of paper, each with a poem on it. Reading them, and the circumstances of finding them, brought a lump to my throat.

I tend not to live in the past – or at least, I try not to. I think it’s important in life to be present in the moment where we are now, and to appreciate that for what it is. But it’s nice from time to time to look back, especially with a few things to jog the memory. It reminds me that the past is made of neither gold nor shit, but the same messy mix of the two as now.

Photo credit: Rich Bowen via Flickr

The difference between starting and finishing

I wrote last week about how ideas were coming thick and fast, and they still are. Turning them into something that hangs together is actually quite a challenge.

Last week I was given the task of turning on the radio and writing a story starting with the first thing I heard. I had an absolute gift of a first sentence from an obituary programme:

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?”

I wrote something that was more like a character sketch than a story, which I’ve posted separately. It came out of nowhere, in the weirdly uncontrolled way that I wrote about last week. It was obvious to me on reading it back that Thom’s personality is a composite and an exaggeration of different people I know. I wasn’t very happy on a first read-through, mainly because it didn’t seem very finished – we were given the job of writing a 500-word story, and instead what came out was a character sketch. On a second read I was a bit more satisfied, mainly because I realised that it could be a part of something else, and that once written it’s there to be played with and reworked and edited later, so that if I ever discipline myself to finish anything, it could be a fragment of the whole, probably unrecognisable from the original. But for all the crazy momentum that ideas get when you give them free rein, you do need to have some order and structure for all of the things that are boiling over.

The other thing I’ve discovered is that every time I try and write dialogue, I chicken out, because I read it back and it sounds hollow. Passages of description have come easily, dialogue less so. I think this has to do with trying to write in someone else’s voice – or perhaps with liking the sound of my own too much.

It’s also very typical of me to have passing and even fleeting interests in many different things: a jack rather than a master. It’s one thing to give space and time to ideas that bubble up. It’s quite another to catch up with them, knock them over, tame them, and yoke them to some kind of purpose.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr Search

Let the radio decide

Turn on the radio, take the first sentence you heard, and then use it as the start of a character sketch…

“I heard that he lost two front teeth in a fight, and half a finger in a sledging accident, is that right?” Simon’s eyebrows were raised in question. I permitted myself an inward laugh.

I hadn’t seen Thom since the argument, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was true. Even as a boy, he had always gone around the neighbourhood like a pinball caught between the bumpers, as furious and careless in his movements, a demented marionette. In all my memories of that time, Thom had scabs on his knees, or tape around his glasses. We would return to the classroom covered with mud and grass stains from wild skidding kickarounds, and mum would insist on me wearing my tattiest clothes before Thom came over to play.

Age did not tranquillise Thom. His chaotic energy deepened in adolescence. The essays that Mr Harrington used to describe as ‘quite brilliant’ would be yanked from the depths of Thom’s bag; we all remembered the time that he delved in the bottom of his bag for one of them, and hauled out a ball of scrawled A4 loosely wrapped around a decaying banana skin. With his left hand, Thom underarmed the banana skin halfway across the classroom into the bin. With the inky fingers of his right he flattened out the paper on the table and scraped away the slippery worst of the banana, before presenting Harrington with his work, pushing his glasses back up his nose, hooking one thumb into his belt loop to give his wilted trousers a yank, and sagging triumphantly back into his seat.

He was the kind of person about whom you could believe any rumour. My first thought on hearing about the teeth was not about the fight – the ‘how’ of it hardly mattered – but about his playing. Knowing Thom’s luck, the finger would have been an unimportant one, used only to hold the instrument rather than depress the valves. As for the teeth, I could picture him turning up, bloodied and with two teeth wrapped in toilet paper, grinning a wonky grin at the dentist: “I’ve had thish acshident, could you put theshe back in plashe for me?” He would then have phoned whoever he was standing in with that week, lying and charming his way out of the gigs, telling them that his trumpet had been stolen, or that his mother had died (for maybe the dozenth time), or that he’d been kicked out by a girlfriend – this at least being plausible – or anything else that would get Thom Bishop off the hook.

And that was the thing with Thom: the antics and the scrapes would amuse you, and you’d dress for yourself the thousand tiny cuts made by his inattentiveness, his disorganisation, his forgetfulness. You indulged him, because your own existence seemed sluggish and grey by comparison, and because on some level, you wanted to be him. When you fell out, if you bullied or cajoled him into listening to your grievance, he would make some clumsy gesture of redress; often, these had their own ham-fisted charm. But they never resulted in change, he never learned, and you’d soon be back where you’d started. And after the argument, I no longer wanted to know.

Image credit: Mark Anderson via Flickr search

Notebooking

Creativity comes rushing once invited.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve hesitated and abandoned bits of writing in the past. I loathe setting down ideas that are half-formed: things that have ended up on this blog are usually written in more or less one go. Yes, there’s always editing, but my first drafts are fast, come rushing out, and I have a pretty good idea at the start what I want the whole to say. This means that, on the whole, I tend not to finish things, or write much at all.

The interesting thing about keeping a notebook – one of the central recommendations and requirements of my writing course – is that you have somewhere to store and put down absolutely all and any ideas that come to you. With hindsight, this is obvious, but pursuing the discipline of notebooking ideas as and when they come is not something I’ve really done before, and I’ve been slightly amazed by what has burst forth.

Next time you’re in a situation where your mind is free to wander, try to take note of your thoughts, rather than simply experiencing them. I don’t mean when you’re busy at work, but instead when your consciousness is withdrawn somewhat, like on the bus. Pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent. Observe the world around you and your conscious reactions to it, and see what happens. You might find a constant babble of questions, connections, ideas, and descriptions, as the mind tries to capture and make sense of what it sees. Not all of these are interesting, but some are: for example, the leaps I make from noticing the posture of someone sitting on the bus, to an inference about their mental state, to an implicit question about why they are feeling like that, to the imagining of possible answers to that question. The inference and the answer may bear no relation to reality: I don’t know whether they feel as I suppose they do, or why how. But it’s the process of indulging the imagination, giving it play, that I’ve been so taken aback by.

Einstein is supposed to have said: “The environment is everything that isn’t me”. An urban and technological environment, with its assault of stimuli, doesn’t offer me many opportunities for this kind of indulgence. We have to steal them by defying it, though fortunately the theft is easy once you have the knack.

Hence ‘pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent’. Hence carrying a notebook and having it to hand all the time. (There are even some technological issues here: the notebook I have is too large for a pocket, and so goes in my bag, where I often forget it and don’t use it. I’ve ordered some pocket-sized ones, and have been thinking of putting my phone in my bag, so that my notebook is there instead in my pocket, for playful, idle moments.) I see this as a way of trying to fill some of my empty mind for myself, rather than inviting an unmediated stream of clickbait drivel to colonise my consciousness.

The results of capturing and reading back over some of what bubbles up from my unconscious have been astounding. Not so much because it’s any different, or any better, than what I have written before. There’s just more of it, and it comes so bloody fast. I feel like I did one day when walking two large, very strong, badly-trained dogs which had not learned to walk to heel. They dragged me half-running, half-stumbling, all the way down the hill to the park, their single-minded eagerness to run and chase squirrels as tight and certain as the leads that held them back and choked their progress. I suppose what I’m saying is that once you give space to an idea, it develops a life of its own, and you’re really just along for the ride.

Not all of the ideas in the notebook are worth keeping. They’re fragmentary. But allowing them headspace whatever their lack of polish, and then looking back over them and thinking, ‘what could I do with that?’ is a cycle of positive feedback. Perhaps the existence of so many stimuli prevents us realising that some proportion of our thoughts can be quite interesting. Under normal conditions, if you don’t catch them, the bulk of them become as ephemeral as smoke.

On being alone

I feel a certain ambivalence as I grow older, remain single, and as more and more of my friends partner off and have children. There is a mild sense of envy, along with a smidgen of guilt, because the envy doesn’t sit well with the genuine happiness I feel on their behalf. The happiness comes from generosity. The envy, perhaps, comes from fear.

I enjoy living alone, but this enjoyment has a double edge. It doesn’t always feel that being alone is a conscious choice, and there are different kinds of ‘alone’. In an overcrowded office I long for peace and quiet and space; in the Tube or a crowded bar, I resent intrusions into my personal space. I hanker after a particular kind of aloneness that I would describe as ‘solitude’, because loneliness is a different, more corrosive thing.

Loneliness has many facets, and can result from either the quantity or the quality of one’s relationships, particularly how they change over time. While friends are fulfilling the demands of their careers and their children, their friendship, though rewarding, is less accessible. It can be hard to meet new people, except through work; and work itself brings busyness and purpose – important things – but sometimes ‘career’ can feel more like a verb than a noun. Loneliness can eat into the fabric of lives, finding the unwholesome corners where doubts and regrets grow.

So detachment from others, being by oneself, can be both a shelter and a source of pain. I’ve always found meaning and interest in paradoxes like this; they capture life’s ambiguities and openness.

Some of this musing is a result of the psychotherapy I’ve been doing. It’s been a longer and more challenging process than I’d anticipated. I used to be rather dismissive of what I thought of as ‘psychobabble’: ‘thinking about X brought up some difficult stuff for me…’ and so on. I thought of myself as a highly rational person, very sure of who I was, quite in control of my emotions. Therapy unfurls some of these beliefs, turns them over, and reveals that my inner life is more complex, murkier to my conscious mind, than I’d admitted. Scarcely surprising, but the hold of self-image is strong.

The smidgen of envy that I feel for friends who are in happy relationships feels like a whisper hinting at what I want. All romantic relationships fail – until one doesn’t – but I’ve taken some wrong turns in my love life. I said detachment was a comfort, enabling a kind of distance. But on bad days, or in the small hours, it snarls into loneliness, at times bordering on desperation. Not all my decisions have been bad, but I’ve been ashamed of some. At best there is a sense of chronic frustration and thwartedness, albeit with the bittersweet consolation of obtaining Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.

I originally went into therapy hoping to get some understanding of why my love life was always going wrong. But the different corners of the mind are interdependent, and the subject matter pretty soon encompasses family, friendships, work, school, childhood, and everything else. A strange consequence of therapy is the realisation that to be a person is to be surprisingly consistent in many apparently disparate situations. Different kinds of relationships stimulate many of the same emotional responses, because they are all rooted in the obscure mulch of a single individual’s experience.

Realising this can be painful. You dredge up memories that challenge, hurt, and anger you, especially when you think how this or that that experience might have influenced your subsequent actions. At times, I’ve also found therapy bitterly amusing, as it becomes plain how easily a therapist is able to identify thoughts and feelings which I’d thought were deeply buried secrets: how ironic it is that some of me is so opaque to myself, while so transparent to others. It felt like discovering that I had been living in the same house as an intimate and possibly mad stranger all my life, blind to all his obvious traces.

More than anything else, I’ve gained a feeling that I am not just what I think I am: that there are eddies and undercurrents; that what I actually do (in anger, in joy, in any situation where I am not really thinking) expresses as much of myself as what I consciously think about myself. Going along with that is a sense of acceptance, too: one feature of being alone is a certain simplicity, a willingness to accept oneself, a self-respect, a sense that generosity to oneself is a condition of sanity, not a reward to be earned. Another gain is a sense of myself as a whole, indivisible personality: the idea that I am more or less what I am, and that I had better know that, and allow for it, rather than wishing it were otherwise. This is not the same as ‘beating myself up’; instead, it feels more like shining a light into my darker corners, and getting to know their shape.

Here I defer to Joan Didion’s words, from her brilliant essay ‘On Self-Respect’:

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.”

‘The ability to discriminate, to love, and to remain indifferent’: this is the point, the end, the grail, the state of mind that is described by religious mystics, the thing that I have been reading about in Meister Eckhart and Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion – a state of detachment, grace, and consolation. It’s as close I can imagine to what it might mean to experience God’s love, to make meaning out of that beautiful but subjective concept: to know that you are as you are, that your being is somehow given, that you may not like every aspect of yourself, and you may not have made yourself deliberately, but that you are somehow stuck with it. This seems to me a much more realistic, and honest, way of viewing one’s own personality than the platitudes and deceptions of ‘self-help’ books, with their doubtful promises that you can wish your dreams into being.

Didion says at the beginning of her essay that ‘innocence ends when one is stripped of the illusion that one likes oneself’. She seems to go on to say that self-respect is the consolation that emerges from this disillusion. I can’t match the icy elegance of her prose, but I find it gentler and more appealing to reframe what she says in my own terms: that maturity and solitude lend us a feeling of wholeness which, turned back on itself, exposes the illusion that it matters at all whether one likes oneself.

 

The amount of solitude which is attainable or would be wholesome in the case of any individual life is a matter which each of us must judge for himself… A due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health. Therefore if it be our lot to stand apart from those close natural ties by which life is for most people shaped and filled, let us not be in haste to fill the gap; let us not carelessly or rashly throw away the opportunity of entering into that deeper and more continual acquaintance with the unseen and eternal things which is the natural and great compensation for the loss of easier joys. The loneliness which we rightly dread is not the absence of human faces and voices – it is the absence of love… Our wisdom therefore must lie in learning not to shrink from anything that may be in store for us, but so to grasp the master key of life as to be able to turn everything to good and fruitful account.

Caroline E Stephen, 1908

Image: Challot via Flickr

An itching conscience

On the train this morning: lots of litter on the table opposite – newspapers and coffee cups and such. A woman sitting down at that table picks it all up and dumps it all down on my table, then says “what?” in response to my incredulity and raised eyebrows.

So I say that there is probably a bin at the end of the carriage. She says there is never a bin on trains, and anyway, she didn’t leave the litter on her table. (I think: you did leave it on mine).

I pick up the cups and paper and take them to the bin at the end of the carriage, figuring that since they’re on my table now, they’re my problem. As I sit down again, the woman says to her travelling companion, loudly and pointedly: “He only did that to show me up.” And since we left the station, she’s been shooting resentful looks at me, checking whether I’m sending aggression back at her. I’m annoyed, but I don’t want an argument. Instead I ponder the strange ways that people are niggled by their conscience, and the things they do to find scapegoats for their feelings.

The funny thing is this: when we got on the train, we were the only people in the carriage. She could have chosen from any litter-free seat, including two other pristine tables.

As could I. I could also have cleared away the litter on her table before sitting down at mine, which probably would have been more responsible. But I just chose to sit on another table.

As I sit here with her bad mood jumping the gangway towards me, I think about the situation. Responsible it might be, but I don’t go around clearing up litter wherever I see it. I don’t think many people do. But if it’s near where I want to be then I see it as my problem to clear up. Her attitude seemed to be closer to: “if I didn’t make the mess then it’s not my problem, full stop.”

What does this say about social behaviour and our attitudes to our environment?

We both (and those who left the litter in the first place) had the notion that disposing of mess was someone else’s job. We differed in the efforts we would make to facilitate that: the original litterers none at all, the woman opposite very little, and me a little more.

She also seemed to experience pangs of conscience about palming it off on me, or at least about her bad manners, though whether she recognised them as such is another matter – I think actually she blames me for makig her feel bad.

But we both wanted to do something about it when the litter affected our immediate surroundings.

I can’t help feeling there this situation has some applicability when thinking about wider environmental questions such as climate change. As people, and as a society, do we see our environment as something that affects us? A thing we are part of? Probably most people perceive, on some level, that the planetary environment is too remote and abstract to them to be real. And do we have a clear idea how to clear up our mess? No: not only do we not really see that its ours (simply by virtue of our being human), but also there are too many incompatible ideas about what to do. Among these we tend to choose the one that costs us the least effort and trouble, with some variation among people in the extent of inconvenience they are willing to accept.

Anyway: a mundane situation, but it made me think, as well as feeling a little bit more pessimistic about people than I did when I left the house.

Money and gift

I remember first encountering the idea of a gift economy at university, during a course on the anthropology of religion. The idea of obligation interested me: where such an economy exists, there is an obligation to give, an obligation to accept, and an obligation to reciprocate.

My tutor used an example to explain: imagine that you open your front door in the morning to find a parcel on your doorstep. It is clearly wrapped as a gift, and labelled as being for you; there is no indication who it is from; and the contents, when you open it, turn out to be highly valuable to you – not trivial, not a trinket, and something that makes clear that the giver understands something about you – your needs, interests, tastes. How would it make you feel?

My answer tried unsuccessfully to find a word that blended gratitude and discomfort. I would have been grateful because somehow my needs would have been acknowledged and understood – a pretty deep form of validation – and spooked because of the anonymity of the gift. How did the giver know what I needed? What might they expect in return? Are my actions under the same scrutiny as my needs?

If my discomfort was strong enough, I might feel unable to accept the gift. And my worries about how I should respond mean that if I accepted it, I might feel obligated in return. Since I do not know the identity of the giver, I think I would want to give something to third parties – by finding, in other words, somewhere to discharge my sense of gift-created obligation.

Most of us will have some experience of this kind of obligation on a small scale, and most of us will also understand other connected ideas such as choosing the right value and type of gift – gifts express something of the actual or desired importance of the relationship to us, so that (for example) if I gave (or more likely, attempted unsuccessfully to give) a piece of gold jewellery to a work colleague, or if I bought a close friend a book on a subject in which I knew he or she took zero interest, it would count as a social faux pas. The gifts I chose would have mis-stated the social bond between us.

What is harder to imagine is the idea of an entire gift economy. We can grasp the idea on a small scale, within a community such as a family or a workplace, for example. It doesn’t mix well with the money economy, though – start increasing the scale of the gift-giving, for example at Christmas, and it doesn’t take long before we feel that we are giving through expectation, and giving beyond our means, rather than giving according to our ability. Personally, another source of gratitude is that within my family, Christmas gift-giving has never been a competitive arms race of monetary generosity, something which used to annoy me before I realised how important it was. Important, because it keeps gifts free of too much of the taint of money. It creates gratitude, community, and obligation, rather than indebtedness, resentment, and alienation.

Gratitude is how we experience a positive obligation, perhaps one that arises from love. When we experience it, we typically restate to ourselves the value of our relationship with the person or entity to whom we feel gratitude, and we may wish to deepen our relationship by expressing that gratitude. Indebtedness is how we experience a burdensome or unwanted obligation. When we experience it, we typically restate to ourselves the lack of a relationship with the person or entity to whom we feel gratitude, and we may wish to discharge our debt without encountering them or otherwise acknowledging the relationship. Too much indebtedness and the feeling of gratitude is lost.

And because our own global economy is a money economy par excellence, gift economies are always contingent and small-scale – a form of resistance. Goods and services that might once have been provided as gifts are commodified. There is probably some need for this – capitalism is astonishingly powerful at innovating and adding value, and I am not saying that, were I to fall off my horse/bike, I would prefer freely-provided Bronze Age healthcare to a visit to social-market A&E.

But innovation is not exclusive to free markets. To take two facile examples, the Soviets sent the first satellite into space, and geniuses like Copernicus operated completely outside the modern economy, which is founded on the dubious idea that everything that motivates people can be measured in money. What I think is more interesting is that a totally marketised economy generates bad innovation and bad growth, serving the needs of people conceived as individual economic actors, rather than as communities with a common interest that can be judged by some method other than the market. James Meek has written really well on this, in a brilliant essay that explores innovation in the NHS through the story of hip replacements. In it, he shows that the innovation now being generated by a free market-driven healthcare system is both worse in terms of patient outcomes, and more expensive, than the innovation that was generated when the NHS was entirely based on a social market. Elsewhere, he has written about the relentless logic of the privatisation of public services.

The logic of what Charles Eisenstein says about gift vs. money economies is both beautifully simple and hard to resist, and though I think the solutions, at least as far as they are presented in this video, are a bit vague, it’s still worth sharing. Thanks to Pad Daniels of Exploring Volunteering for drawing my attention to it.

‘Stilla kväll’ / ‘Quiet evening’

I found a piece of paper I was given by a Swedish friend. On it is a poem by Jarl Hemmer (1893 – 1944). I like its message that no experience is wasted.

As you would expect, it sounds a lot better in its original language.

Quiet evening

Like the song of a thousand crickets was the falling of spring rain
on the darkening mirror of water which was dreaming, free of swell.
A bird twittered so weakly and tenderly from the safe foliage along the shore,
and slowly it whispered, my rain:

“It is the quiet moments on which your life should rest.
This evening nothing, nothing at all has happened, yet something happens all the same.
A bird and a spring rain have sung a song to you.
Take it with you. It can help you later on.

Stilla Kväll

Som sång av tusen syrsor var vår regnets fall
mot halvsläckt vattenspegel, som drömde utan svall.
En fågel pep så vek och späd ur strandlövets hägn,
och sakta det viskade, mitt regn:

“Det är de stilla stunderna som du skall leva på.
I kväll har intet, intet skett, men något sker ändå.
En fågel och ett vårregn ha sjungit dig en sång.
Tag med den. Den kan hjälpa dig en gång.”

Photo credit: Sheila Sund via Flickr