It’s called reciprocity. Here’s how it’s done.
Gratitude is the rock star of emotions. Over 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues. It is the parent of all the others.” Being grateful reduces stress. It makes us happy and fun to be around. If our gratitude stops at giving thanks, though, it won’t last. We have to give back, to live in what Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls reciprocity.
“Through reciprocity the gift is replenished,” says Kimmerer. When Europeans arrived in 17th Century America, they were astonished at the richness of the life they found here. They attributed the bounty to God, and Nature certainly was the first source. But the indigenous people’s stewardship of the land had a lot to do with it. They found ways of harvesting plants that caused them to grow back stronger, ways to hunt and fish that increased animal populations. They took from the land, but they didn’t take too much, and they gave back to it.
“Reciprocity means keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving,” says Kimmerer. “All flourishing is mutual.” This is a deep lesson. In my experience, embracing the idea of reciprocity changes the way we see the world. Life is not about getting and holding; it’s a constant flow in which we take part.
“All flourishing is mutual.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer
To live with reciprocity moves us to find our gift and give it. It means taking what is offered with gratitude, not being greedy. It means personal growth that benefits the world, not “improving our solitary selves, so that we achieve our own personal goals, with no real thought about the fallout,” as essayist Jessica Wildfire describes most self-help writers.
Reciprocity is revolutionary
You might notice that reciprocity is the opposite of how our economic structure pushes us to behave. Capitalist economics assumes we are all individuals motivated above all by material self-interest . In capitalist societies, money equals power, so such societies tend to devolve into rule by the greediest, as we can see in the USA today. Imagine instead a society where reciprocity, not greed, was the operating principle.
Dr. Kimmerer says spreading gratitude is a revolutionary idea. “In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires… Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift, subverting the foundation of the whole economy.” Gratitude is bad for business, but it’s good for people and crucial for a planet being eaten by excessive consumption.
Canadian writer JB McKinnon, author of The Day The World Stops Shopping says “Consumption — of fast fashion, flights, Black Friday-discounted gadgets — has become the primary driver of ecological crisis… When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology. That’s not to mention the impact materialism has on our mental health, inducing feelings of inadequacy and envy, and encouraging a culture of overworking.” We are so much happier when we live in gratitude, and the world is so much better off when we live in reciprocity.
“Consumption — of fast fashion, flights, Black Friday-discounted gadgets — has become the primary driver of ecological crisis.” -J.B. McKinnon
Doing gratitude right
When I was a child, it seemed like everyone gave a brief prayer of thanks before eating. “Saying grace” usually meant saying ‘Thank you, God’ and digging in, but is an impersonal God really the only one to thank? What about all the animals, the plants, the insects, the sun, the moon, the people who grow food and bring it to us? What about water, without which life cannot exist? What about thanking all them, especially the ones who gave their lives to feed us?
Dr. Kimmerer describes the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy Thanksgiving Address. This address is traditionally spoken at public meetings and may go on for half an hour. “When you say the Thanksgiving Address,” says Kimmerer, you realize all you have been given, and it becomes impossible to feel deprived.” It helps people come together to face the issues they confront daily.
In my life, I find that I have to give frequent thanks if I want to stay sane. But I notice that giving verbal thank yous, or a prayer or a Thanksgiving Address doesn’t make me feel much better, if people keep suffering and the world keeps getting more desperate. I have to move beyond thanksgiving if I am to live in reciprocity with Nature’s gifts.
Swiss philosopher Henri Feredric Amiel wrote, “Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” For our own well-being and to move the world in positive directions, we must turn gratitude into action.
“Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” Henri-Frederic Amiel
Turning gratitude into action
When people do good things for you, how do you pay them back? Thanking them is good; let them know how their actions have helped you. Doing things for them in return is a form of reciprocity. If you are disabled and can’t do much, as I sometimes am, you can repay them by listening. You can advocate for them; you can teach them and let them teach you. You can give gifts, or you can send the gift forward to other people and living things.
How does one reciprocate with animals and plants? They might not understand ‘Thank you,’ but one can care for them, create healthy spaces for them, whether they’re pets or wild. Pay attention to them; love them. The gardeners among you know better than I do how to give back to plants. I just know gardening is hard work that brings pleasure to a lot of people.
Protecting wild things enables them to keep giving back to us. Get involved in restoring habitats and ecosystems. Community gardens feed people and give living spaces to plants, insects and birds. If we can’t do physical restoration, we can give political support to those who can, or we can donate.
Reciprocity applies to the way we treat other people, too. Don’t use them up; don’t hold them back. Listen to them; build them up, and they’ll give back to you.
Gratitude for Mother Earth
Giving back to Earth doesn’t mean living in poverty; it means treating all of Nature as family. Indigenous Americans of the lake regions harvest wild rice but make sure to leave enough to re-grow for next year and to feed the animals who need it too. Their rules include never taking more than half of the plants or animals, and only to take what Nature offers freely. So, using oil that bubbles up from the ground or a gusher would be OK, but fracking with explosives for shale oil would not be. Cutting a few trees you need for a house is a thing, clear-cutting a forest is not.
Reciprocity with living things would mean big changes in agriculture and the use of chemicals. If people saw the factory farms and the chemical plants and talked to the people who live near them and work in them, there would be a lot more vegetarians and organic eaters, and a lot fewer users of industrial chemicals.
When we realize we depend on Nature to keep us alive year after year, as indigenous people do, says Kimmerer, you will treat it as well as you can, give back freely to increase the gift. Capitalist science has confused us into believing that we do not depend on Nature; we depend on technology and money. But we can’t eat money. We still depend on Nature, even if our electronic cocoons obscure that dependence. We must take care of Nature and each other the way she takes care of us.
That’s reciprocity, and it will make us happier and healthier.
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