In their yearly meeting this year, British Quakers faced up to the issue of increasing inequality. They reflected that our economic systems only recognise and encourage one part of the human condition – the competitive, greedy part. There is more to us than that.
Usually, we measure inequalities of wealth in terms of money. Money can turn into anything. Its possibilities are endless. We always feel we could use more. In fact money has been expanding its territory. It can buy far more things than it used to: someone to stand in a queue for you, a device that will switch on your heating as you are driving home, a wrinkle-free neck. Things that used to be free cost money now, as the time that could have been used to care for a child or elderly person, for instance, is committed to paid employment instead.
Somehow, money always fails to satisfy. We all know there are things money can’t buy – love, friendship, the beauty of nature. These we have to receive as gifts. Gifts, when we receive them, give rise to a joyful sense of gratitude. When we give them, we feel a pleasing satisfaction.
It is open to all of us to enlarge the realm of gifts and in doing so to reduce the dominance of money.
We can find that we are afraid of gifts. Why is she giving me that? What does she want in return? If I give him something now, will he take advantage in the future? Involving ourselves in networks of moneyless exchanges does not have to be scary or to require saintly unselfishness. It’s not to do with being ostentatiously generous. It’s just a matter of being willing to be involved. It can even be a very practical option. As the Amazonian hunter said, when asked where he stored his meat without a refrigerator, “I store it in the belly of my brother”.
In this relatively wealthy country, poverty, in the sense of lacking what we need, is often more to do with loneliness than with cash. As we pass windfall apples over the garden gate, lend a lawnmower, teach someone to knit, we discover who our neighbours are, share enthusiasms with strangers, become involved in the community and even build up a kind of security for a rainy day that could outlast any banking collapse.