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More than money

When we give money, we are saying that the world of money is what we value.

A few valuable things that aren't money: notes from your child, big trees, walks together, being surprised by an animal, flowers and papayas in your garage garden, and a conversation with a friend.

The other day I had a bit of a shock. I am helping a friend organize some interviews with people in Costa Rica for a PhD dissertation. It’s important for this type of project to not exploit or take advantage of the people that one interviews for personal gain (and especially to avoid harm to the participants). My friend and I were discussing potential compensation for his participants. But when I reached out to the community, they said, “No, we will happily participate with no strings attached.”

What? They won’t accept money or groceries in exchange for their time? The community is not wealthy (in fact, it would be considered economically poor by most standards).

A few days later, unsolicited, my Costa Rican husband mentioned, “You know how people here in the US will give money to their neighbors for doing favors like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow? That is unheard of in Costa Rica. It would be an insult to pay a friend for a favor like that.”

Huh, I thought. Yes, I get that. People would be more likely to consider the favor a part of a mutual relationship that will include favors traded over the course of a lifetime. But what to do about the interview participants? So I asked. My husband replied, “Maybe throw them a party or something.”

This past weekend our nephew from Costa Rica finished up his three-month stay in the US. He was here to perfect his English, and he did family stays and a part-time internship. I took him through the regular “re-entry” discussion questions I used to do with US study abroad students in Costa Rica:

“What are you ready to leave behind here as you go home?”

“What new habits or routines did you learn that you hope to take with you?”

“What are you excited about doing when you get home?”

“Is there anything about home that you don’t want to do anymore?”

“What short anecdote or idea do you want to share with people when they ask you how your trip was?”

We talked about each question briefly. When I asked if he had gained any general insights about the differences or similarities between the US and Costa Rica, he thought for a while and then said, “You know, I learned that I should appreciate my own country. One thing is that here in the US, everything is about money. The US seems like the maximum expression of capitalism. In Costa Rica, people do favors for each other without the expectation of payment, and money is just less a part of life.”

There it was again!!

Before I go on, I need to point out that while he had this perception in general, our nephew stayed with two host families who fed him, housed him, and made him a part of their families without any expectation of repayment. They were incredibly generous, and certainly didn’t count the cost or send him an invoice. For that, he, and we, are truly grateful.

I thought back to other conversations I’ve had recently. My friend Pri Montano from Asi Comemos en Casa, whose recipes I share monthly to New Backwater subscribers, said this about our attempt to sell the recipes online: “Sales are important, but the best part of this project is to send a little piece of Costa Rica into people’s homes.”

I have invited several other people to be a part of this blog project, and I have been thinking about ways that I might be able to help some Costa Rican friends who lost their jobs in the pandemic to earn a little extra income. You know what they all said?

“No, payment isn’t what I’m looking for. I just enjoy doing something with a friend.”

What is it about me that this perspective is hard to understand? I also enjoy doing things with friends, and don’t expect payment. So why do I expect others to accept money?

Here’s something: If there is a long-term commitment to a project that involves a cost to me, I may try to make sure that the cost doesn’t start to make it prohibitive for me to participate. For example, I often need child care to be able to participate in a volunteer group that I’m in. Because our culture doesn’t necessarily plan for children to be present at meetings, an alternative way to make my participation possible is for the organization to help me cover my child care costs.

Is monetizing everything “in the water” in the US? Now that I’ve been back here for going on five years, have I just internalized the emphasis on money again? To play devil’s advocate, isn’t it just fair that if I have money, and someone helps me out, I should share that money?

I can also understand how differences of opinion on these issues (to give money or not to give money) can lead to misunderstandings and hard feelings. I mean, take the example of paying a neighbor to shovel snow: if one person uses some money to say a genuine thank you, but the other person refuses to accept it, isn’t that just as insulting for the “payer” as it was for the “payee” being offered money for something he or she was trying to do for free?

Or, when it seems like the one thing I have to offer someone in exchange for their hospitality and kindness is money, it can leave me feeling guilt and shame when they don’t accept it. But perhaps this is the problem.

Maybe, by boiling everything down to a monetary value, we give credence and importance to money that it doesn’t deserve. Maybe we need to be more creative about what constitutes an acceptable response to hospitality.

If money doesn’t deserve the importance that we have given it, what should we value instead? And what can people with money do with it, if not give it to people who have less of it?

Ivan Illich, in his great 1968 speech called “To Hell with Good Intentions,” has something of an answer for this, in the form of a BIG critique of our consumeristic, monetary culture in the US. Here he is talking to people who are preparing to go volunteer in Mexico. He urges them not to go at all, saying:

“I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. A group like this (of volunteers) could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God's blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages. Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction - except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately - consciously or unconsciously - "salesmen" for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven't the possibility of profiting from these. Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.”

These words hit home: when we give money, we are saying that the world of money is what we value.

It seems that during the pandemic we have all been challenged to understand the value of life, health, and mental health as having little to do with money. We have seen that our current way of life “is not alive enough to be shared,” as Illich argues. Of course, parts of it are – the parts that have to do with family, with home cooking, with being outside and being together. But people these days are turning down jobs, quitting jobs, and demanding that jobs have a better work-life balance. We have learned that taking a pay cut to work from home and be close to our families (and even pets) is worth it.

On the podcast On Being, the most recent two guests (The Future of Well Being) discussed changing our relationship with health and healthcare: “Especially in a time of pandemic, they know the measures that are often first at hand: hospitalizations, cases, deaths, school closures, unemployment figures, and so on. But they also want to bring other measurements into their question of healthiness in society: How is mental health among people who are isolating? What is their sense of connection to other people? Speaking about what a post-COVID world might look like, Vivek shares: “one of the things I really want to do in this job is not only help us to get through this pandemic, but to really think more deeply about how we do better when it comes to mental health, about how we have a broader conversation as a country about well-being and how we reflect that, not only in the decisions we make in our lives, but in how we design our schools, how we design our workplaces, and what we think of as success when it comes to public policy — not just the dollars and cents of it, but whether or not policy contributes to a sense of well-being.”

Latin Americans have had a sense of this, and used it as geopolitical strategy, too. The model of the Buen Vivir (Good Living, or well-being) in the Andean countries, is a direct challenge to the US way of life. The Venezuelan-initiated ALBA strategy of global cooperation is too. We in the US have often seen a challenge to “our way of life” as a bad thing. But I think we are at a moment when we can recognize that there may be room to consider alternatives (or at least not to send bombers to destroy the alternatives).

So what might be some alternatives to paying participants in a study in Costa Rica, or to giving money when we partner with people? As I have been doing some reading on participant compensation, I found this short comment in a forum particularly helpful: “Empathy and respect are more important than money. But money, depending on the cultural context, can be a metaphor of these. So be sensitive to the field in which you are working before taking a decision.

How do we communicate empathy and respect for each other? And what does a life look like that does not value money as a first priority? These are deeper questions that I try to explore here. To be continued...


Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.

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