AA and Free Gifts, from Lewis Hyde

Here is a timely excerpt from Lewis Hyde’s classic, The Gift. A gift may be […]

CJ Green / 12.18.15

Here is a timely excerpt from Lewis Hyde’s classic, The Gift.

A gift may be the actual agent of change, the bearer of new life. In the simplest examples, gifts carry an identity with them, and to accept the gift amounts to incorporating the new identity. It is as if such a gift passes through the body and leaves us altered. The gift is not merely the witness or guardian of new life, but the creator. I want to speak of “teachings” as my primary example here. I do not mean schoolbook lessons, I mean those infrequent lessons in living that alter, or even save, our lives. I once worked for several years as a counselor to alcoholics in the detoxification ward of a city hospital. During those years I naturally became acquainted with Alcoholics Anonymous. AA provides a “program of recovery” for alcoholics that makes a good example of the sort of teaching gift I have in mind.

AA is an unusual organization in terms of the way money is handled. Nothing is bought or sold. Local groups are autonomous and meet their minimal expenses–coffee, literature–through members’ contributions. The program itself is free. AA probably wouldn’t be as effective, in fact, if the program was delivered through the machinery of the market, not because its lessons would have to change, but because the spirit behind them would be different (the voluntary aspect of getting sober would be obscured, there would be more opportunity for manipulation, and–as I shall argue presently–the charging of fees for service tends to cut off the motivating force of gratitude, a source of AA’s energy).

So AA’s teachings are free, a literal gift…AA has “twelve steps to recovery,” which more or less summarize the program. The twelfth step is an act of gratitude: recovered alcoholics help other alcoholics when called upon to do so. It is a step in which the gift is passed along, so it is right that it should be the final one. In AA they speak of people who are “two-steppers”–that is, people who take Step One (accepting they are an alcoholic) and then jump directly to Step Twelve (helping others) without the in-between steps where the labor lies. They try to pass along something they themselves have not received.

There are many other examples of teachings as transformative gifts. Spiritual conversions have the same structure as the AA experience: the Word is received, the soul suffers a change (or is released, or born again), and the convert feels moved to testify, to give the Word away again…

We could speak of artists’ lives and artist’ creations in a similar fashion. Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself…

The point is that a conversion, in the general sense, cannot be settled upon ahead of time. We can’t predict the fruits of our labor; we can’t even know if we’ll really go through with it. Gratitude requires an unpaid debt, and we will be motivated to proceed only so long as the debt is felt. If we stop feeling indebted we quit, and rightly so. To sell a transformative gift therefore falsifies the relationship; it implies that the return gift has been made when in fact it can’t be made until the transformation is finished…In the hospital where I worked we would ask people if they wanted to get sober, but that was only after someone had asked them if they could afford a week in the hospital. AA only asks if you want to get sober.

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