Living in the gift

And what is the sacred? It has two aspects: uniqueness and relatedness. A sacred object or being is special, one of a kind. It is therefore infinitely precious; it is irreplaceable. It has no equivalent, and thus no finite “value,” for value can only be determined by comparison. Money, like all kinds of measure, is a standard of comparison.
Today, we live in a world that has been shorn of its sacredness, so that very few things give us the feeling of living in a sacred world. Mass-produced, standardized commodities, cookie-cutter houses, identical packages of food and anonymous relationships with institutional functionaries all deny the uniqueness of the world. The distant origins of our things, the anonymity of our relationships and the lack of visible consequences in the production and disposal of our commodities all deny relatedness. Thus we live without the experience of sacredness.
By default then, a monetized life is a profane life, since money and the things it buys lack the properties of the sacred. What is the difference between a supermarket tomato and one grown in my neighbor’s garden and given to me? What is different between a prefab house and one built with my own participation by someone who understands me and my life?
The essential differences arise from specific relationships that incorporate the uniqueness of giver and receiver. When life is full of such things, made with care, connected by a web of stories to people and places we know, it is a rich life, a nourishing life. Today we live under a barrage of sameness, of impersonality. Even customized products, if mass-produced, offer only a few permutations of the same standard building blocks. This sameness deadens the soul and cheapens life.
In ecology, this is the principle of interdependence: that all beings depend for their survival on the web of other beings that surrounds them, ultimately extending out to encompass the planet. The extinction of any species diminishes our own wholeness, our own health, our own selves; something of our very being is lost.
A sacred economy is an extension of the ecology and obeys all of its rules, among them the law of return. Specifically, that means that every substance produced through industrial processes or other human activities is either used in some other human activity or, ultimately, returned to the ecology in a form, and at a rate, that other beings can process. It means there is no such thing as industrial waste. Everything cycles back to its source. As in the rest of nature, our waste becomes another’s food.
Why do I call such an economy sacred rather than natural or ecological? It is because of the sacredness of gifts. To obey the law of return is to honor the spirit of the Gift because we receive what has been given us, and from that gift, we give in turn. Gifts are meant to be passed on. Either we hold onto them for a while and then give them forward, or we use them, digest them, integrate them and pass them on in altered form.
If the sacred is the gateway to the underlying unity of all things, it is equally a -gateway to the uniqueness and specialness of each thing. A sacred object is one of a kind; it carries a unique essence that cannot be reduced to a set of generic qualities.
Tribal peoples saw each being not primarily as a member of a category, but as a unique, enspirited individual. Even rocks, clouds and seemingly identical drops of water were thought to be sentient, unique beings. The products of the human hand were unique as well, bearing through their distinguishing irregularities the signature of the maker. Here was the link between the two qualities of the sacred, connectedness and uniqueness: unique objects retain the mark of their origin, their unique place in the great matrix of being, their dependency on the rest of creation for their existence. Standardized objects, commodities, are uniform and therefore disembedded from relationship.
The original purpose of money was simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so we might all live in greater abundance. But money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, separation rather than connection. Despite what it has become, in that original ideal of money as an agent of the gift we can catch a glimpse of what will one day make it sacred again. We recognize the exchange of gifts as a sacred occasion, which is why we instinctively make a ceremony out of gift giving. Sacred money, then, will be a medium of giving, a means to imbue the global economy with the spirit of the gift that governed tribal and village cultures and still does wherever people do things for each other outside the money economy.
In the beginning was the Gift.
We are born helpless infants, creatures of pure need with little to give, yet we are fed, we are protected, we are clothed and held and soothed, without having done anything to deserve it, without offering anything in exchange. This experience, common to everyone who has made it past childhood, informs some of our deepest spiritual intuitions. Our lives are given us; therefore, our default state is gratitude. It is the truth of our existence. For the first years of life, none of this was anything you earned or produced. It was all a gift.

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