I’ve never been to a barn-raising. The closest thing I can recall was the summer when my family’s vacation was a cross-country trip from Colorado to Indiana to help my aunt and uncle build a house near the Lake Michigan shore. Everyone contributed to the family effort, including all of us kids. While the men sawed and hammered, we youngsters were the supply line, answering calls for nails, tools, sandwiches, water and cold beers late in the afternoon. Laughter, teasing and good-natured griping were enhanced by running barefoot in fine dunes sand.
Neighbors dropped by to help or kibitz, bringing macaroni salad, coolers of iced drinks, an extra radio.
That memorable cottage raising was an early taste of what Nipun Mehta calls “Giftivism.” A software engineer, Mehta sees kindness and generosity as key to transforming society’s greed and preoccupation with wealth. Working at Sun Microsystems, tired of the late-1990s dot-com greed, he and three friends decided to experiment with offering an act of pure giving. They ended up building a website for a homeless shelter, leading to more than 6,000 web-sites being built at no charge for nonprofits, giving rise to the organization CharityFocus, now called ServiceSpace.
Designing for generosity would offer many opportunities to experience a giving world. Mehta, his wife and friends began the Karma Kitchen, cooking and serving meals each Sunday at a Berkeley restaurant. Diners order what they like and receive a bill for $00.00. They’re told that their meal was paid for by the previous diner and are asked to pay for the meal of the next diner.
“We wondered how long we could keep this chain of exchanges going — and it’s been four years so far,” Mehta said. There are now Karma Kitchens in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The “charity focus” Mehta describes in a YouTube video is a blessed relief from a limiting cultural belief — the notion that everyone is motivated by economic self-interest.
Deep inside, we know that richer, deeper values shape the bedrock of our lives. Few would choose to start a family, based only on economic considerations. We recognize the impossibility of placing a price tag on our health. Or the feelings evoked by a piece of music or the smell of a fresh pie emerging from the oven.
We aren’t economic entities. We are social creatures with caring and altruism entwined in our DNA.
Infants cry at another’s distress. Youngsters try to soothe their mommies’ sadness. Toddlers stumble their way between sharing and declaring “Mine! Mine!” Teachers, researchers and parents watch entranced as this developmental process unfolds.
There’s deep wisdom in Robert Fulghum’s poem, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”: “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.”
But beyond preschool, there are few places to learn sharing and practice giving. Generosity is a bit like a muscle; it grows stronger with use.
Sharing works beautifully in my friend Carol’s extended family that frequently expands to four generations, a family run business and an organic farm. The complex exchange of time and energy, child care, physical labor, creative problem-solving and ever-shifting work schedules hums along “until someone decides a situation requires a tit-for-tat exchange,” she says. “That creates a bottleneck in the flow of energy.”
Last spring, Carol and I joined a few more friends for our own experiment in generosity — a Really Free Garage Non-Sale. Our inspiration: the increasingly popular Really Really Free Markets springing up in various communities. We brought out useful items from our garages, closets and storage spaces and offered everything free. There were donation tins for local charities for people who felt uneasy so far out of the world of exchange. We enjoyed people’s delight and surprised ourselves, too. Who thought we’d each go home with some amazing find? We all received just what we needed, including sharing a joyful day.
Come warmer weather, we’ll be ready for more adventures in giftivism, living in a generous world, at least for a day or two.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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