When we write a poem we make a gift. When we paint a picture or build a beautiful house we make a gift. When we grow flowers and cook food we make a gift. When all these actions are performed as sacred acts, they nourish society. When we are unselfconscious, unacquisitive, and act without desire for recognition or reward, when our work emerges from a pure heart like that of a child, our actions become a gift. — Satish Kumar, “You Are, Therefore I Am”
On my dresser is a large hand-crocheted mushroom made of colorful, thick yarn. There is a long loop so you can wear it as a necklace, and if you pull off the cap of the mushroom you can store a BIC-lighter in the stem. On the side is inscribed in red lettering: Feel Free. The necklace-mushroom-lighter-holder was gifted to me at Burning Man 2010: Metropolis as a reward for completing the harrowing climb atop a large art structure. The gift filled me with joy then and it fills me with joy now.
Amazon.com is now advertising itself as having the “Earth’s greatest selection.” If you pay extra and sign up for Amazon Prime, you automatically receive two-day shipping along with a feature called “one- click shopping,” meaning that, with one click, you can instantly purchase an item and it is guaranteed to arrive at your doorstop in less than 48 hours. To shrink this time down even further, Amazon is building million-square foot distribution centers outside of major cities. The most popular gifted book on Amazon in 2010 was “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose” by Tony Hseih. Hseih founded Zappos, a shoe and apparel site famous for its company culture, before selling it to Amazon.com for a whopping $1.2 billion dollars.
In other words, we live in a society where, with the click of a button, any product in the world you desire will arrive at your doorstop in two days or less. And this is referred to as Delivering Happiness.
Burning Man is, according to its website, a “carefully crafted social experiment.” Essentially, every year Burning Man presents an empty canvas and allows the lucky participants to paint the picture that they all want to see. One desert, 10 principles and 50,000 people all trying to create the world they want to live in, with as much passion, excitement and rainbow LEDs as they can muster.
We create an intentional community and a way of life that is not possible in the “default world” in hopes that we can bring back what we learn. And the three principles that fly most in the face of our materialistic, capitalistic society are gifting, decommodification, and radical self expression.
Clearly, we live in a consumer society. It’s a materialistic system based solely on acquisition and consumption. Both buyer and seller are driven by selfish desires to maximize their own needs and as a result, as we all learned in Economics 101, both are better off at the end of the transaction. Consumerism essentially asks two questions: 1) What do you want?, and 2) How do you go about getting it?
But what if that was all wrong? What if the best way to be happy was actually making other people happy? What if the questions were: 1) What do you have to give?, and 2) What’s the best way to give it? What if there was some way to test it all out?
The principles of gifting, decommodification, and radical self-expression encourage these questions. Burners come to the Playa to offer to the community what they have that is truly unique. Some gifts are enormous art projects requiring hundreds of man-hours, some are gluten-free pancakes, others are handmade necklace-mushroom-lighter-holders. By encouraging unconditional gifting, participants create their gift with no attachment to the outcome, with no desire for an external reward. Thus the action comes from within; gifting comes straight from the heart.
In the default world we refer to this process of gifting as a “social exchange.” Market exchanges are a thing you pay for and are set by market rates, like a $40 cab ride to the airport. Social exchanges, on the other hand, are the things we do for each other, for our friends, and for our family, because we want to do them.
We make Thanksgiving dinner because we love our family, we make chicken soup for a sick friend because we want them to feel better, we offer a couch to crash on because a friend has no place to live. None of these things we do because we want something in return. Asking for payment would be absurd.
Social exchanges, as acts of giving, reflect the world we want to live in – a world where we matter, where people care for one another, where people look out for one another, and a world where people are driven by the desire to help others. This is the world we create every year in the middle of the desert as a way to learn how best to create this world in the middle of New York City.
And as we return to the balancing-act of living in our current age, as we put away our sparkle-pony and pornj outfits to live and work as engineers, scientists, accountants, poets, writers, activists, musicians, employees of Amazon.com and consumers of Amazon.com, we mustn’t forget that we all have something to share each and every day.
We all have have our own particular gift to give to the world. What’s yours?