Contribution and Consumption

Part 1: The Consumer

I’m thinking about contribution and consumption this morning.

Sometimes it seems to me that most of what I do is consume. I’m not just talking about TV and electronic toys, though I do indulge in those sorts of things. There’s food, of course, and I pay a lot of attention to being a good consumer – healthy for my body, sustainable, no torture for food animals – but that’s just a matter of how to consume well, it’s still not contribution. Even the things I do to cultivate my mind and perspectives, like meditate or read books with good wisdom in them, they’re still just inputs. (People sometimes talk about “spiritual materialism”, collecting all the shiny new spiritual perspectives…)

I’m consuming book 9 of Outlander, at the moment, and I’m struck by the many ways that the main characters Jamie & Claire are of contribution – to their family, to their community. Jamie’s family motto is “Je suis prest”, which I believe would be spelled “Je suis prêt” in modern French – “I am ready”. And he is, he’s ready to be a soldier or a hunter or a leader or a sensitive elder to a person in need. I like to think that all the ways I’ve cultivated myself have left me ready as well – not as a hunter or a soldier, but as a steady presence, and as someone who can help our culture evolve forward by recombining and recirculating important ideas, and maybe even coming up with one or two new ones now and then.

But I’m feeling weak in the area of actual contribution. I’m not a community leader – I don’t even know what that would look like in my life, apart from politics, which I tried before and is such a morass. One thing I can do is write, and spread my ideas that way. I have this blog, but I’ve been an infrequent contributor here. That leaves me thinking that most of my contribution to humanity over the past few years has been my posts on Facebook. And I’m happy enough to be on Facebook, but that’s still pretty humbling.

I’m hoping… planning… to write more in 2022. Blog, book, curricula for workshops or plans for community gatherings. Something to be of more contribution. Then I can go consume the latest Marvel movie with the satisfaction of a job well done, a life well lived.

Part 2: The Contributor

In the days after writing the above, I’ve been experiencing the contrasting perspective. Sometimes, laying out a particular Thesis of something that’s bothering me leads to an interesting Antithesis. Staking out one pole of a position suggests the opposite pole.

So I’ve been blessed to consider all the ways that I’m actually of contribution. And here, I see how I’ve discounted what’s ordinary. I’m a solid contributor at my job – which is a software product used by literally millions of people. And I’m a husband, and a brother, an uncle, a son. A friend. Occasionally, I even get to be a friend that gets asked for advice about something someone’s struggling with – actually, that’s happened very clearly with two friends in the last two months. So all of that is No Small Potatoes.

It’s interesting that I discount it because it’s ordinary. Like, OK, yeah, I do that, but what about this other Great Work that I think I should be doing? It’s kind of like “anhedonia” – the tendency we have, rooted deeply in the mechanisms of our neurology, to stop finding pleasurable things pleasurable once we’re used them, to only find pleasure in contrast. Here I’ve made the similar error only finding meaning in contrast – not in the meaningful things I do every day, but the spectacular new meaningful things I hope to do. (And occasionally do.)

Part 3: The Exchange

But there’s another contrasting perspective that’s arisen as I contemplate this further: to dissolve the whole consumption/contribution duality as a false paradigm. Because most experiences of consumption or contribution are really an experience of exchange. I see this when I want to make a contribution – for instance, suppose I want to put on a workshop. What do I really need for that to be a success? Participants – people who want to experience the workshop – in other words, Consumers! Most instances of me being of contribution to the world requires someone other being or beings to “consume” that contribution; and conversely, each instance of be being a consumer necessitates the existence of some other contributor. The flow is rarely one-sided; generally there’s some exchange of value.

Much of this involves money, which I’m very much in the habit of dismissing, but it’s often a very meaningful pathway of exchange. I’m consuming the latest Outlander novel; but that’s also an exchange with Diana Gabaldon and her publishing team, where millions of us readers are receiving their contribution and contributing money back to them in turn. And my entire lifestyle is supported by the financial contribution I receive from my company and its customers as they consume my work product. And of course I think it’s wonderful that I’m supporting the kind of agriculture I believe in with my food dollars.

So these contribution/consumption absolutes – it’s been a really interesting path to explore, to take them apart and look at both sides, but there’s no absolute here. There’s something else underneath all of this, which is that there are things I want to contribute (exchange?) that are different from what I have been contributing (exchanging?), and I’m feeling called to examine and explore those things.

And that among these things, are this post, and this comment.

As we learn in Integral Theory, we must differentiate before we can integrate. Which sounds like math, but it’s just a way of saying we need to take things apart and look at the pieces before we can put them back together in a more powerful and complete way. Zen master Genpo Roshi refers to this process as the “Apex”, where any concept and its opposite are explored in a polarized form, often with some judgement, and from there the synthesis is developed, felt, and experienced.

Further up and further in…

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