Getting a Return

I have been thinking a bit about ‘returns’ lately. I read a blog about ‘return on energy’ that pointed to the growing awareness of our choices and what is at stake when we make them as we age. Are we getting more out of life than we’re putting in? This kind of ‘capitalist’ metaphor got me thinking. Is life a transaction in which we need to measure the return as a basis for assessing our ‘life worth’?  

I am a capitalist insofar as I believe in free enterprise. I don’t know of a better or more democratic way to allocate resources. I become a bit suspicious, however, when I see capitalism becoming an ideology or, as is the case today, the prevailing and dominant paradigm of human existence. This has become pretty obvious over the past 25 or 30 years as ‘globalization’ has become the only game in town. If capitalism is a means of allocating goods and services, then globalization is the means for distributing capitalism. They are heads and tails of the same coin.

The problem with capitalism as a paradigm is that it is built on a single predominant value—return on investment. Other values can exist but only if there is a ‘return’. Even charity and philanthropy depend upon having ‘excess’ resources first. The real threat this poses isn’t in the virtues or excesses we associate with capitalism, but with the fact that it becomes a monolithic worldview that excludes any possibilities and practices that don’t fit the ‘rules’ implicit in philosophical premises.

I am not an economist, but I do believe human beings are more than just economic entities that function to fuel endless economic growth for its own sake. When I observe that values such as love, community, compassion, selfless commitment to justice, and eco-sensibility are subordinated to ‘having a market and getting a return’, then I fear for our future because being true to those values often leads to counter-intuitive and sometimes counter-capitalistic choices. If we add the complexities of politics and power to the equation, then the problems become even more daunting.

My reflection today, however, is on the word ‘return’ itself—not the political, philosophical or economic realities of capitalism per se. Capitalism is just the symptom of a deeper and more deadly condition in much the same way that alcohol is just a symptom—not the cause—of alcoholism. The problem is that we live in a self-referential worldview that presupposes we must always ‘get’ more than we ‘give’—whether we are talking about buying and selling goods and services, having a relationship or raising our children. Even the idea of ‘sacrifice’ for the sake of others is grounded in this transactional, quid pro quo, way of being in the world. We can see just how pervasive this is: when we consider the alternative, we end up thinking we must be ‘giving’ more than we’re ‘getting’ (or possibly we consider we’re ‘even’). These are simply the same paradigmatic view seen from the opposite perspective. However we look at it, we are keeping score, making judgments and living in moods that correspond with whatever we think is the ‘score’ and assessing how different options will affect our ‘balance sheet’ in the future.

Any way you cut it, this is a self-centered, egoistic and individualistic way of relating to life. It isn’t ‘wrong’: it is just structurally and systemically blind to any other perspective. This in turn sows the seeds of its own self-destruction—just as alcoholism or any ‘ism’ will self-destruct when it becomes an end rather than a means.

The answer isn’t in trying to force different behavior but in having an awareness of the condition and creating a relationship with a larger context that can allow for different choices and possibilities. The question then becomes what is a larger context than capitalism?

Is it even possible to imagine living in relationship to the world and other people in a manner that isn’t concerned with keeping score? In which relationship is not transactional and in which we are taking care of our concerns and the concerns of others without measuring values based on what they ‘have’ or what they are ‘worth’? I am not speaking of some airy-fairy ideal of “Love everybody, we are all the same”.

I am speaking of making decisions and commitments that are aligned with some vision for a future that is bigger than our individual position in some sort of cosmic pecking order. I am speaking about having an ethic of responsibility for the whole. Many people have this within the scope of their family, few within the context of their community and fewer still can live this kind of ethic at a national or global level. Yet our future is being shaped and determined at the global level—politically, environmentally and perhaps even spiritually. Decisions being made in the Middle East, in Asia and in the Arctic affect us all—and not just in terms of costs. They are an expression of our values, our responsibility for our governments and, ultimately, of our own vision of the world and of ourselves.

So going back to the idea of ‘return on energy’ (meaning personal energy expended compared to what one accomplishes in life)…I suggest the equation read that the return is always 100% no matter what you choose. You always ‘get’ 100% of your life and you always ‘give’ 100% of your life getting it. The story you tell about what you want, what you like, where and when you succeeded, or when and where you failed is always after the fact—and just a story of what happened. Someone else could tell your life story differently and it would be entirely different. The movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart comes to mind.

I don’t know, maybe God keeps score and there is some sort of a big computer in heaven that records our pluses and minuses and ‘key performance indicators’ like most businesses do today. I doubt it. I think at the end of the day we can declare we lived our lives fully in a context of love, were happy, valued by others, enjoyed good health, and expressed ourselves fully—or we didn’t. And that’s just the way it is.