When I talk to people about reciprocity as a value they rarely know what I mean. When I ask, people will say it means give and take, a sort of mutual exchange. Yes it does, but those definitions do not do it justice. Reciprocity is a natural value, one that is inherent in nature.
Reciprocity speaks of a cycle, a cycle of mutual giving. Lewis Hyde, in a book called: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Hyde tells the story of the term, “Indian giver.” In American Indian society is was a custom to smoke a peace pipe with guests and when they left the guests would be presented with the pipe. They, in turn would follow suite with their guests, and so the pipe would slowly journey around the members of the tribe. It so happened that one of the Pilgrim families visited an Indian family, and as was the custom the Indian family gave the Pilgrim the lovely soft red stone pipe. The white man was delighted and put it on his mantel piece . He knew it would be a wonderful addition to a museum in England and proof of his adventures. As time passed an Indian family visited him, in turn. Upon seeing the pipe they were excited and expressed, through their interpreter their expectation that the pipe be given to them. Hyde writes that in consternation the man invented the phrase, “Indian giver”. Hyde comments, “The opposite of “Indian giver” would be something like “white man keeper” (or maybe “capitalist”), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum (or, more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production).”
All life on this planet engages in reciprocity, except modern humans. The core act of reciprocity is that each life form is food for another. Even here we manage to abdicate on this essential commitment and put our dead in marble boxes to effectively keep us out of the food chain.
Most of us love to give. Americans are a singularly generous nation. But, let me ask you, how you feel when a gift is offered and the receiver refuses it? This is something we do often, “Oh, no,” we say, “Thanks very much, I can handle it.” How does that make you feel, demeaned, devalued, angry, irritated? Giving makes us feel powerful and good inside, denying a gift keeps the illusion of that feeling of strength and at the same time dismisses the generosity of others.
In a gifting economy relationships are strengthened. In a money economy relationships are weakened. Our fixation on stuff makes it hard for us to believe that a gift could have any meaning other than bribery. We see gifts as barter with a favor of some kind being required and fail to see the expression of relationship that would tie us (tie us down?) to another. Our addiction to independence, an addiction that makes us anxious and lonely, is used to rationalize our resistance to the kind of relationship building that a gift economy might generate. For that we pay dearly.