from Occupy Wall Street

I have written about money before, though not much. It’s been a complex topic to address. Because it’s so central to our way of life in modern times, both individually and globally, I feel drawn to address it, to excavate meaning, to find and support freedom in relation to it. Because it’s so loaded, I can’t imagine writing about it without ruffling some feathers. The result: I’ve been accumulating notes, ideas, and questions and mostly waiting for another time to do the actual writing.

Then, earlier this week, I had a very tough conversation about money with three of my most beloved supporters, a volunteer team that’s helping me put together the East Coast version of my program Leveraging Your Influence. The topic was about how we were going to handle money and sustainability in the upcoming retreat in November. One of the results of this conversation was that it reminded me just how important I find this topic, and I decided to up the priority of writing about it. I now have an outline of a mini-series with at least six parts I want to finish by Thanksgiving, when I plan to launch my new Maximum Wage campaign website.

Then I ran the outline by Dave, the man whose creative eyes find all the images that accompany my blog posts, and realized just how much bigger the task was than I had anticipated if I was going to do it justice. Maybe I will continue to write about money for much longer, then. Given the magnitude of the task, I decided to start by a preamble of sorts, writing about my own current challenges with regards to money.

I don’t often expose the difficulties I experience in their raw form on this blog. As much as I am committed to the path of vulnerability, I usually package my feelings into presentable learning before I write about them. This time, however, my intuitive sense is that the details of what made that conversation so painful for me might be meaningful for at least some people to read about. First, some background.

Aiming for a Flow of Generosity

From wiki.gifteconomy.org

Although I haven’t yet written systematically about all the aspects of my thinking about money, I imagine many people reading this blog regularly may have an intuition about what my vision is. I dream of a world run on a gift economy basis (one of the subjects of a future post). I see, vividly, the possibility of people self-governing, sharing resources locally and globally, attending to everyone’s needs in a collaborative way. The image of a flow of generosity replacing the world of exchange is a precious vision for me.

On some level, I don’t see any reason why I can’t live into that vision even now, in my own daily life, in the ways that I organize my work, and in all my interactions. In some parts of my life, I’ve managed to carve out small spaces that operate outside the logic of exchange. I take piano lessons, for example, and I have a unique arrangement with my piano teacher that works miraculously well for both of us. Rather than thinking of myself as “paying” him for lessons, I think of myself as part of the circle of people who choose to take direct responsibility for his livelihood. I gift him directly from my heart, fueled by generosity and curiosity. Neither of us looks at exactly how often I come for a lesson (since I travel, and he also sometimes cancels, the number of lessons is incredibly variable). A few times a year, I sit down and write him a letter describing how I have been enriched by our work together in the last while, I reach into my heart and ask myself how much money I feel moved to give to him, and I enclose a check with my letter. These are, clearly, love letters, and that is what we call them. I cherish this experiment and the beauty that’s come to both of us through it. I also have other places where there is no exchange or accounting, in small or larger ways. Each such oasis gives me energy to keep searching.

It’s harder, I have found, to create such relationships when I am the one asking for money. I carry with me the words I remember hearing from Marshall Rosenberg; something about not working for pay while always making sure we have enough resources to sustain us in doing our work. I love this idea of uncoupling money from my contribution, which is one step in the direction of perpetual gifting. Since it fit so well with my own sensibilities, I’ve been wanting to find ways of bringing the mindset of generosity and gifting into the ways I deal with money in relation to the people who choose to participate in events and workshops I lead. I’ve been wanting this since the very beginning of sharing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with others, starting in 1996.

This was the topic of conversation with my friends, the conversation that went so sour: how can I make what I offer accessible to everyone who wants to participate while at the same time maintaining my own livelihood; what is the math that would make that possible? And, equally importantly, what is the way of asking that will not compromise my sustainability while at the same time maintaining my own integrity in supporting choice and clarity for people?

This is not a new topic for me, and it remains an ongoing experiment. It was hardest at first, when I was getting paid directly by the people I taught or coached. It so happens that it was also a time when I was equipped with a whole lot less skill, consciousness, and inner strength. Initially, I found that getting paid for a session, for example, was one of my least favorite moments. There was something that I experienced as demeaning the richness and sacredness of the moments I shared with people. I didn’t know how to settle into receiving money as the gift that would allow me to be able to bring my own gifts to the world with greater ease.

It wasn’t easy, even when I got that clarity, to engage with people about money. There were times, for example, when I received a check from someone and didn’t trust the amount. Twice I dared to cross the taboo, and directly asked people whether they were holding my own needs for sustainability in their mind when choosing the amount. Both times, my question startled the person into actual engagement, reflection of their own and my needs, in a way that I trusted the result of their inner deliberations. Both times they ended up giving me a lot more than they had initially written on the check. Both times we felt more connected, more real, more hopeful.

The Gap of Vision and Reality

Over the years, I have collected moments like this, stories of when the flow truly worked. There was a woman, for example, who for years was coming to workshops and even private sessions and offering only small amounts of money. She had a low-wage service job, and there was no way she could give more. She kept saying that if ever she came into money, she would give us some of it. Then, when her divorce settled, she came into a small amount of money from that. Nothing else changed in her circumstances. Still, she gave us a check for $10,000 – the amount that made it possible to take the risk and hire Kit Miller as our managing director in 2004. Then there was the woman who, while being homeless, signed on to be a monthly donor at $5 a month. There are moving stories like this that happen all the time, nurturing and sustaining my faith in the possibility of generosity to make everything work.

Alas, there are also other experiences, painful in two persistent ways. One is about people being challenged to receive the generosity offered them. I hear from some people that they can’t cross some internal line, despite trusting that I mean it about people being welcome even without money at all. Sometimes it’s because of not wanting to carry a burden of obligation, and sometimes it’s because of shame about not having enough money. Either way, I know that no matter how I present the offering, it’s not as accessible as I would like because of whatever people carry within them, independently of me. This just breaks my heart, because often enough it’s the people I most want to welcome that select themselves out.

Similarly, I have had experiences of people not giving as much as I would like them to. I am struggling how to even talk about it now, with some real concern that some people will read this as “guilt-tripping” when what I want, and the reason I am writing this, is to have some companionship in grasping how deep the challenge is of stepping outside the usual exchange dynamic. I hope to be trusted in this intention.

I remember, in particular, one time hearing from a man the following, almost word for word: “I want to do your program and also another program offered by this other trainer. Since they are not offering scholarships, and you are flexible, I am going to give them money to that program and not to you.” In some small moments like this, I feel a spike of discouragement and helplessness that can be quite extreme. Some part of me interprets such events as being “penalized” for my generosity. So far, all the times such experiences happened, they subsided fairly quickly. I am choosing to accept this possible outcome and to continue to extend myself anyway, because I would rather trust and be disappointed than close my heart and give up on people. Not just about money; this is overall my approach to life, and I hope to be able to maintain it for as long as I live.

The harder piece is about finding ways to invite people truly to step into a different way of making the choice about how much money to give when the flexibility is there. My experience, overall, is that whenever I set a sliding scale, most people give the minimum on the scale. Whenever we have raised the minimum on the scale for an event, most people then gave the new minimum. We neither got fewer participants nor more people asking for scholarships. When I have lowered the minimum, as was the case for the Leveraging Your Influence retreat in April (compared to last year), most people gave the lowered amount despite being asked to give as much as they could.

I’ve been thinking about this challenge for years, trying endless permutations, and not yet finding a way to transcend it. I have tried giving no sliding scale guidelines, and then many people experience anxiety and confusion. I have tried creating collective conversations to talk about all of our relationships to money, and have had experiences that were traumatic, both for me and for participants. I long to find a truly simple way to invite people into giving money based on a desire to support the vision and the people who work for it rather than as an exchange for value received. So far, I have not been satisfied with any of my experiments.

Honoring My Vision

It was within this context that I had the painful conversation I alluded to earlier. My friends want to support the sustainability of the program and devised a plan to have me provide detailed financial information, including expenses associated with this program and overall how money is used within my part of BayNVC. While I have a “no secrets” policy and am happy to reveal everything about BayNVC’s and my finances, I couldn’t find a way to settle. I wanted to honor whatever it was inside of me that resisted the plan mightily. A big part of how I manage to do what I do, which involves a tremendous amount of work on my end (some people believe and tell me that it’s more than humanly sustainable), is because I never push myself to do something that doesn’t feel right inside me. I didn’t even know exactly what it was, I couldn’t quite find a way to even explain it well to my supporters, and yet I knew I didn’t want to push myself. It was particularly excruciating because I knew, even while feeling such stress and anguish, that the only reason they were persisting in asking me to do this, was because they wanted to support me. Saying “no” to people who love me and want to support me was truly challenging. It is a testament to our shared love and trust that we didn’t lose connection while having this difficult conversation, even while at least two of us were crying.

Now, a few days later, I have a dawning sense of why I was resisting the idea of giving a detailed accounting. I simply don’t see that path as inviting generosity, and I am unhappy to imagine people giving out of obligation. As much as I want to ensure that the work that I am doing continues and that my own livelihood and that of the people who work to support me is sustained, I am deeply committed to only receive money that comes my way with joy and generosity. Writing this, breathing in this moment, I touch the depth of this commitment with tears in my eyes. If there isn’t going to be enough money that people give with ease of willingness to support my work, I will certainly have a major problem to address, one that many before me have faced. I don’t know how I would face it. I do know that I would rather face it than participate in what I see as a subtle form of coercion – people paying because they believe they have to.

After settling emotionally, our little team continued to discuss the practicalities of how to approach this question for the upcoming retreat. And so we came up with yet another attempt to revise the language and the approach, one more experiment, one more hope that we can create an atmosphere of shared exploration. Come November, we will see how it works this time. Whatever else happens, I know learning will be part of it.

Perhaps now you can understand at least part of why I want to write extensively about money. I want to conclude this preliminary piece with a sneak preview of some of the questions I want to explore in this mini-series:

  • How do we tease apart and think freely about the meaning and relationships between value, exchange, and gift? (a more systematic exploration of some of the themes raised here)
  • How does money shape our thinking, decision-making, and relationships?
  • What is the role of money, and especially debt-generated money, in the unraveling of communities since the industrial revolution?

The final piece of this series is designed to be about the maximum wage campaign that I am planning to start, scheduled to be launched on Thanksgiving day.

There’s more, and I am both nervous and super-excited to be embarking on this. I so deeply see how much money has come to be a central factor in modern life. This makes asking questions and looking at it courageously a very necessary part of the possibility of a livable future.
Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, September 17, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog.We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing


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