A Common Life

A Sunday gathering message by andy pakula

To be of use
By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Cottonwood Trees
Lynn Ungar

The cottonwoods are flinging themselves outward,
Filling the air with spiraling flurries, covering lawns in deepening drifts.
You could not call this generosity.
Like any being, they let loose what they have in order to survive,
in order that their lives might continue in a new year's growth.
The more seeds they send out on their lofted journeys
The greater the chance for their kind to flourish.
There is no hesitation.
No one asks how much they will give. Without words
They know so clearly that everything depends on what we call giving,
that which the world knows only as a creation.

"We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."   Words  of  Winston  Churchill.

Imagine for a moment that you have a favorite restaurant near where you live. You go there often. There are a few dishes on the menu that you always order and they are just perfect for you - just what you want.

And then one  day, you go in expecting the usual pleasant experience and the menu has changed. It's not at all like the old menu. You figure, OK, I can try something new, but when the dish arrives at the table,  you hate it. It is nothing like what you’d hoped for.

Do you continue going to this restaurant? Do you volunteer to help improve it? Or do you go to a place down the street?

I imagine that these seem like ridiculous questions. Of course you take your business elsewhere. The deal with a restaurant or any other business or just about any other organization with whom you interact is transactional. It is about an exchange: you give them money and they give you the product or service you want. If you don’t get what you want, you go somewhere else.

It’s simple. It’s just business. You are the consumer. They are the provider. They're part of the bargain is to give you what you want. Your part of the bargain is to pay the agreed rate - no less and certainly no more.

This is the culture we live in. Nearly everything we participate in  works with this basic premise. We give a service to an employer in exchange for money. We then exchange that money to get transportation, to get clothes, to get food and drink, to be entertained, to get access to communications technology, and so much more.

The system of commerce that creates this way of being is not a bad thing - it is incredibly useful. If we didn't use currency and transactions, we would either have to do everything for ourselves - including growing our own food, making our own clothes, and treating our own illnesses - or we'd have to use some rudimentary trading system to get what we need.

Although the system itself is useful, it has its hazards. This means by which we meet most of our practical needs seeps into everything we do. The tool that humankind created has grown to shape and change us. A transactional approach to life becomes the basic approach to  engaging  in life.

One day, I did an experiment. I went out on our busy street with some money in hand. As people passed by me, I met their eyes, held out a five pound note and said "This is for you. Please take it." I meant  it  sincerely and I did give away some notes.

You will probably not be surprised though to hear that most people did not accept the gift. In fact, most people would not even engage with me. There may be many reasons why people wouldn't engage with a stranger offering them money, but one of the dominant paradigms forward involved is that nobody ever gives anything without it being part of a transaction - receiving creates an obligation.

If someone does something nice for you, do you think "what does he want in return?" When you have given something to someone - whether a thing or a deed or even your affection - at some level you are likely to be resentful if you don't receive something similar in return.

Is this the way we want to live all the time? Is this the way of thinking we want to dominate our interactions?

The alternative is something more like mutuality - a way of being where we recognise that we are creating together a world that we all want to live in. This world would be one where we give more when we have more and less when we have less. It would be a world where we could receive without feeling obligated and give without arousing suspicion.

Glimpses of such a world are rare. This community is one place where we work towards that ideal.

If we were to base New Unity on a transactional way of thinking, how would things be different?

We would begin by charging for everything we do - and everyone would pay the same price regardless of their means. A sunday gathering might cost £10. Maybe a pound extra per candle lit?

We all try together to create this microcosm of a world of mutuality here, but it is not surprising that the transactional mindset sometimes creeps in to our thinking and actions.

Childrens' programme would be a separate charge. After all, why should people who don't have children have to contribute to the cost of caring for other people's children? Are you struggling  and want to talk with me? I suppose that ought to be about £50 per hour. Weddings, funerals, child dedications - it would all be a transaction and everyone would pay the same thing - whether they attended here regularly or never did.

That is not the way we want to be. It may be the way of our world, but we have been clear that it is not the way we want it to be here.

We all try together to create this microcosm of a world of mutuality here, but it is not surprising that the transactional mindset sometimes creeps in to our thinking and actions.

It is difficult when deciding how much to pledge not to ask "what am I getting for my money?" Or maybe to feel "I won't give more until I get our way." It is almost inevitable - when we don't get exactly what we want - to think that "they" are not adequately meeting our needs and we should punish them by doing or giving less.

And those are the right ways to think when dealing with a business whose purpose is to make money by meeting our needs. Then, the "they" is clear.

Here, the "they" and the "we" are the same. Yes - we have staff - but the staff can only meet a small fraction of the needs and wishes of this community. Everything else depends on the actions and the generosity of people just like you - people who are prepared to give of their time and their talents to make things happen.

Your attitude to pitching in to support this community will shape its future. If you step forward to help grow our capacities, our programmes, and our efforts to make a better world around us, then our community moves forward.

But our attitude toward giving of ourselves is not only about what happens to this community. It is about the way we choose to live and how we will live together. The more we allow the transactional mentality of the marketplace into our lives, the smaller and less connected we become.

When we choose mutuality, our lives grow as we create a space of greater connection, generosity, and interdependence. We create a glimpse of the world as we wish it were rather than simply accepting the way it is.

We make a life by what we give.

May it be so