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On Lewis Hyde’s The Gift

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At my house, we have a big whiteboard in the kitchen for menus, shopping lists, schedules, and general reminders. One day I came into the kitchen and saw this reminder written on the board, 

This was true; I rarely carry cash, so I had borrowed twenty dollars from my son William. I hadn’t paid him back yet, and I still didn’t have the cash to do so. So I wrote on the board, 

WILLIAM OWES DAD HIS EXISTENCE.

I figured that would buy me at least a little time. But the next time I came in the kitchen, William had added another line, just below mine:

WILLIAM DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN.

The market economy is a matter of managing finite resources. Money doesn’t grow on trees, as I have often told William. A market economy is made up of transactions that, ideally, represent fairness and balance. If you loan me twenty dollars, you expect to be paid back twenty dollars, possibly with interest. If you pay me twenty dollars, you expect to receive at least twenty dollars’ worth of goods or services. 

At the same time, there are goods in life that the market economy cannot account for—goods that you did not and could not earn, goods that you can pass along only as gifts. The greatest of these goods is your very existence: you didn’t ask to be born, yet here you are. A small sampling of the many, many goods that belong to the gift economy rather than the market economy would include friendship, love, oxygen, natural beauty, faith, and art in all its forms. 

I have six children. I can’t justify that in terms of a market economy. My wife and I can have no reasonable expectation that the money and resources we “invested” in our children will come back to us. There’s a chance, I suppose, that one of our children will take us in when we’re old and can’t afford a good nursing home. But in strictly market-based terms, the smarter thing by far would have been to invest in a mutual fund.

This is the point at which I am supposed to say, “But, in truth, my children have given more to me than I ever could have given to them.” I actually do feel that way, but that isn’t the point. Such a statement still implies the kind of exchange you expect in a market-based (or at least market-ish) economy: I gave my children something, they gave me something back. It was a good deal for both of us.

Instead, I say this: Goods, both tangible and intangible, flowed to me. I didn’t earn those goods, I didn’t deserve them. For the most part, I didn’t even ask for them. Those goods flowed from me to my children. From my children they will flow outward to others (including, but not limited to their own children, Lord willing). 

The Gift Must Always Move

In Lewis Hyde’s explanation of the gift economy, that idea of goods being passed along rather than being exchanged is exceedingly important. In a market economy, you give money and goods to those who can give you goods and money that you deem to be of at least equal value. The books stay balanced that way. In a gift economy, the gift-recipient does not balance the books with the gift-giver. They books are balanced otherwise.

Unlike money and tangible goods, when it comes to intangible goods (love, joy, peace, security, hope for the future, faith, beauty, the ability to knit or change brake pads), you don’t have less when you give them away. Indeed, you have more. To the extent that you can say they are yours, they are more yours when you pass them along. Also—and this is exceedingly important—as your gifts are passed along, the world looks a little more like the world you want to live in. 

Jesus and the Gift Economy

In a market economy, it is possible to create and amass a surplus, and perhaps even get rich. The amassing of surplus is one of the most important ways to raise your own status in a market economy. In a gift economy, you gain status not by amassing goods, but by giving them away. Indeed, there is no practical way to amass a surplus in a gift economy. Gifts accrue worth as they are passed along, but a gift that is hoarded withers and dies. Lewis Hyde illustrates this idea by way of a lengthy survey of gift-giving practices in tribal societies. I won’t attempt a summary. Instead, I will direct your attention to Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant.


A servant owed his master a huge sum that he couldn’t pay back in his lifetime, or even in several lifetimes. He begged for more time, telling the master he would pay it all back. But instead of giving the servant more time, the master took mercy on him and canceled the debt. That should have been a happy ending, but the servant who had been forgiven the insurmountable debt tracked down a fellow servant who owed him a small debt. He grabbed him, choked him, and insisted on getting paid. When Servant B begged for more time, Servant A refused and had him thrown in debtor’s prison. The other servants, appalled at this behavior, told the master what had happened. The master, also appalled, un-forgave Servant A’s debt and threw him into debtor’s prison after all.  

The unforgiving servant, having received mercy, had the opportunity to increase the work of mercy in the world by passing the gift along. Instead, the gift died, lost not only to the wider world, but also to the servant who had received it.

I will also add that part of the unforgiving servant’s problem seems to involve an inability to discern when to apply the principles of the market economy and when to apply the principles of the gift economy. Which, admittedly, can be hard for any of us. 

Market economies are remarkably efficient when it comes to exchanging finite resources. The system is abused (and is therefore abusive) in many ways, but even the most fair and equitable market you can imagine still can’t account for many (most?) of the goods that constitute a good life. The market economy is good for what it is good for. But it is easy to overstate what the market is good for. It is easy to mistake how far its boundaries extend.

One mistake is to allow the market to define what it means to be a “person of substance.” As Hyde writes, Where “getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person…a disquieting sense of triviality, of worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of a gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities.” Hyde’s observation applies to all whose work is unlikely to make them rich, but his focus is primarily on artists.

Artists and the Gift Economy

Art, Hyde observes, exists simultaneously in both the market economy and the gift economy.  Then he adds, “Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.” Of course, you can pay for art. I hope you do, and often. Nevertheless, there is a strange disconnect between the money you pay for art and the value you receive from it. Lewis Hyde again:

“That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.”

When you are touched by art, you feel gratitude. You feel that you have gotten something that you didn’t earn or deserve or pay for. Perhaps you have received something that you didn’t know to ask for. There is a moral dimension here that is worth paying attention to. Hyde quotes Georg Simmel: “Gratitude is the moral memory of mankind.”

The market economy, I should add, mostly frees us from gratitude and its moral requirements. When you buy a pair of boots, you don’t feel any particular gratitude toward the person who sold you the boots. You paid your money, you got your boots. Even if you got a great deal, even if it turns out you like the boots more than you expected to, the transaction at the cash register released you from anything as personal, entangling and/or messy as gratitude toward the boot-shop owner. With art, not so much. Art makes you want to thank someone.

If art is a gift to its recipient, it is even more of a gift to the artist. The artist’s talent is a gift to begin with, and yet that gift is only a start. The work we’re all hoping to do always feels as if it has come from somewhere beyond our own talent and insight and ego. Hyde writes, 

“We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls into place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work.”

Art, then, begins not with hard work or determination or a brilliant idea, but with receptivity and gratitude. A whole world of gifts are poured out for you. I’ve already mentioned talent and inspiration, but there are also beauty and stories and the works of other artists that have stirred longing and gratitude in you. The grateful response to all that goodness, truth, and beauty is to pass it along. You will have more, not less when you give it away. 

For Hyde, gratitude is something like a labor pain: “Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude…passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor.” I don’t know how I feel about speaking of gratitude as something we “suffer.” But otherwise I take his point. The gift has to keep moving. You receive the gifts that are on offer. Those gifts become the raw material of whatever gift you offer to the world, with a little something new added or transformed. But even that little bit of newness and transformation is a gift.

Art is a gift, coming and going.

Jonathan Rogers is the host of The Habit Membership and The Habit Podcast: Conversations with Writers About Writing. Every Tuesday he sends out The Habit Weekly, a letter for writers. (Find out more at TheHabit.co.) He is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor, as well as the Wilderking Trilogy, The Charlatan’s Boy, and other books. He has contributed to the Rabbit Room since its inception.

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