During my four decades in the business world, specifically the office furniture industry, I’ve watched the almighty dollar and the “bottom line” take unquestioned precedence over all other aspects of our lives and value systems. Of course profit is what pays for our rent, labor costs, and other expenses, but in the end, as I like to point out, “we will all go down (or up, or sideways, depending on your particular belief system) to the same place”. And although something may be the current or popular cultural “norm” it is not necessarily the most correct or the only perspective on what is truly valuable. As a grad student in Pullman, Washington, in “the seventies”, I was intrigued to learn about an indigenous Northwest Pacific cultural tradition in which giving away the most wealth was recognized as the peak social achievement. A Potlatch ceremony is a big party or social gathering to distribute accumulated property and gifts, largely to affirm strong standing within a group. Potlatches were institutionalized by the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although each tribe or kinship group had some of their own traditions, a Potlatch was essentially a giant social event to give away accumulated wealth. The greater the size of the gathering and the variety of gifts, the more honor it reflected on the donor. Great feasts and generous hospitality accompanied a Potlatch, and the efforts of the Potlatch host’s family were exerted to maximize all forms of generosity. The proceedings gave wide publicity to the strong social standing or “worth” of the donor which was then further enhanced going forward because there were so many witnesses to their great generosity.
Ironically, in the tradition of Western Civilization, the “anonymous donor” is widely recognized as the “best” sort of donor, primarily because they do not require outside acknowledgement as a reward for their generosity. By extension, individuals who have accumulated or acquired a great amount of money (net “worth”) either legally or illegally, whether through their own efforts, heredity, marriage, or other group affiliation, are often referred to in contemporary culture as being “worth” the sum of their amassed fortune. They are glorified as “incredible” examples of wealth and accumulated material resources. Wealthy individuals in many situations are not even encouraged to share with the greater community unless they choose to do so…after all, it’s “their money” to use as they wish. Extremely generous “wealthy” individuals are sometimes characterized as being less tough or “strong” or having other questionable motives. Are they trying to “buy” favor or gain some other sort of power by “donating” resources to the community…or do they crave external adulation to substantiate their own low sense of self-worth? Essentially, contemporary Western culture equates extreme hoarding, narcissism, and generally self-centered rather than community centered behavior with strength, the polar opposite of the Potlatch tradition of communal wealth sharing. How can two value systems be so different when we all get “just one life to live”…as far as we know? Is one of these systems completely delusional or are there points to each which have merit? The United States of the 21st Century, building upon an historic tradition of “rugged individualism”, is (like ancient Rome) the apex of glorification of individual prosperity over societal prosperity. We have become “The Ugly Americans”. Is this truly the best legacy we can leave for our children, grandchildren, and future generations?
The current COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity, time-out, or pause, to stop and consider what we believe makes a life valuable. Right now is the best time to make changes that will be beneficial for the survival of the human species and our planet. I hold out hope that we can find a path to balancing the greater good with the values of individual freedom and liberty. Mobs wielding automatic firearms, like those who marched into the Michigan State Capital this week are not a long term solution to any of our problems. While we may not all be in exactly the same boat…this pandemic reveals that we are all in a very leaky and sinking boat that badly needs shoring up. We no longer have the luxury of thinking of shared resources and individual freedom as mutually exclusive concepts.
At Pear Project Services we love giving away nearly half of the furniture and all of the miscellaneous office supplies that we rescue from offices. Our expenses need to be covered, but beyond that we are truly a “social enterprise”. We measure our “value” or success by how much good, reusable product we can save from ending up being tossed into landfills and share with individuals and groups that need it. In our value system, giving really is better than getting.