Paying back or paying forward: What does it mean to give?

To take a holiday is a luxury, but one that may not be wholly turmoil free. After finishing a job last year, I booked a flight to Mexico – one ‘last hurrah’ before returning to study for the next (infinite) chapter of my life. I was luckier again to have Mexican friends to put me up, ferry me around, shower me with food and attention, without asking for a thing in return. It wasn’t long, however, before their hospitality began to overwhelm me. I felt compelled to return the generosity in whatever meagre way I could – and hamstrung by my inability to do so.

But my compulsion to mitigate the volume of their bestowals made for some inelegant exchange. I became an awkward receiver and a hasty, if hopeless, reciprocator. My attempts to pay for meals and groceries were mostly in vain. Scheming, I vied towards labour options, a tactic through which I eventually managed to cook, clean, and care (hanging out with my teenaged friend during the holidays when her mother had returned to work). I would pay them back, and any favour would do.

Take this Waltz!

Over the years, I have found the varying, sometimes conflicting, rules and expectations around giving and receiving somewhat confusing. In some of my relationships, bills are prized and fought over; in others they are itemised then split. In others, still, they are ignored or forgotten until the most brazen of us acts. Our bill dances range from tango, to contact improvisation, to solo contemporary. And I don’t always know which I’ve signed up for. I suspect much of my confusion stems from not knowing where I stand – from fear of committing social faux pas which I do not understand. 

Giving and community?

If my anxieties around these rules or expectations are at all shared, I wonder why is this so? What exactly is it that compels or obligates us to pay people back? A recent aid, for me, has been Marcel Mauss and his idea that reciprocity impresses people into social contracts. Enduring relationships emerge through ongoing, alternating acts of giving. A gift or favour, for Mauss, is not a one-off or altruistic act, but an invitation to enter into a relationship defined by reciprocated or rotating acts of giving. This is similar to work in evolutionary biology, where an altruistic act benefits an organism’s most genetically similar relatives – their community. These ideas help explain, to a point, the compulsion to reciprocate as a means of maintaining relationship balance.

And often, this is just what relationships look and feel like. A friend who has lent a listening ear, made a meal, or bought a round is owed the equivalent in return. Most in my circles are attuned to these sorts of ‘rules’ and it takes little to recognise and enact the appropriate ‘repayment.’ It is through this kind of reciprocity that many of us form and maintain relationships. Favours are seldom ‘counted’; reciprocity is ingrained. But I can’t help but feel that, while the ethos of reciprocity remains very real, its application is becoming more and more confused.

Co-opted co-operatives 

A great deal has been written differentiating community and commodity relations (have a look here for a quick summary of Durkheim’s organic and mechanical solidarity, for example). But I am starting to sense that whatever boundaries that may once have cleaved these apart are becoming increasingly muddled. As our communities expand beyond the immediate or proximate, does the reach of our obligation follow? 

Commercial interests seem to be becoming more and more entwined in these enlarged communities. The massive market that is superannuation, for instance, has transformed in recent years to invite investors to direct their funds towards sustainable energy projects and work in human rights. Banks are doing the same. An online news source asks me daily to subscribe – a plea to support not just its journalism but my readership community. I am told it seeks financial support from those who can afford it so that it may be available for those who can’t.

These examples tell us that our compulsion to give and to give back to ever widening communities can also be co-opted by commercial interests. I am not disputing the advantages of this development, but am instead drawing attention to the ways that goodwill and community have been made commodity as we recognise the potentially global scope of our actions, contributions, and obligations.

My point is that our compulsion to give and reciprocate is real – so real that it has been harnessed by major markets. What we once thought of as community-oriented generosity now has limitless application in communities that exceed most imaginable boundaries. More confusingly, there is a fine line (or sometimes no line at all) between community and commercial interests.

Knowing how to give

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we are less sure about how to maintain our relationships and communities. Rules of relating ethically become harder and harder to define when ‘who’ and ‘what’ we feel obliged to give to, transgresses the kinds of contracts or relationships we’ve grown up accustomed to. Giving, once associated with global communities and markets, complicates and confuses whatever rules and roles we thought we might have learned. We can less easily determine how – when, in which direction, to what extent – we are to give. In Mexico, I was not sure how to return the favour. In my everyday life, I am becoming less sure when one is owed.

But in one instance at least, perhaps I reciprocated as I should. How could I have forgotten that on Christmas night with my friends in Mexico, stomach sated with salt, flour, and hops, with cheeks aglow, and a galloping pulse, I had serenaded their forty-strong family with ‘Land Down Under,’ karaoke-style? If this had been my return gift, perhaps next time I will regale the lot in Australia myself.

[Feature Image by Kylie Wong-Dolan]

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