Twice a week, on my way to the zen dojo, I walk through Glasgow University and past a plaque commemorating Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, who was a professor there.
Adam Smith had a theory about the origin of money. He said that prior to money, people would rely on barter. Say that I’m a fisherman and you’re a farmer. I’d give you, say, two fish for a lump of bacon. That was the exchange rate. There’d be some other deal with the baker and the candlestick maker. But the problem with the barter system was that it was cumbersome. So, some bright spark invented money.
The thing is, the theory is entirely untrue. When anthropologists looked at ‘primitive’ societies who didn’t have money, they worked on mutuality, not barter. If I caught a lot of fish, I’d give you some. When you slaughtered some pigs, you’d give me some bacon. It wouldn’t work of course if one of us was a freeloader, but that didn’t seem to happen.
I thought of this in connection with our language of sexuality, which seems to operate as a kind of barter. I ‘give’ you x, then you ‘give’ me y. If I receive x from you, I feel the obligation to give you something back. It’s as if our sexuality is reduced to Christmas time at the Miser Twins’ house, where each twin gives the other £5. Miserable.
The language of phoney giving is ubiquitous. The most rapacious and greedy people talk about ‘giving something back’, or about their ‘legacy’, as if they’re the Hapsburg Empire or something.
People imagine zen is like that too. You put in the hard yards of meditation, and in due course you’re rewarded with enlightenment.
Miserable. Miserable. If we monetise our souls, we will be folded up into nothingness.
Here is a modest suggestion: I believe that what makes us truly happy is the opportunity to be the best version of ourselves. So, when we have the chance to give, and we can give wholeheartedly, we should be grateful for that because, for that moment at least, we are the person we want to be.
And applying that to sex, instead of being resentful and dissatisfied and constantly calculating what we’re owed, we can be grateful for the chance, at this moment, not to be a crimped, calculating person, but a great person, and so, we can give, not in the expectation of reward, but in gratitude at being let out of the cage of calculation. And we can freely receive knowing that whatever connection we create is enough of a gift in any given moment. And that’s priceless.