This phrase returns repeatedly in Cloud Atlas, a film detailing mysterious connections between various characters throughout eons and plot lines. A radical idea, echoing the Corinthians verse: “you are not your own, you have been bought at a price”. In the film, this thought was enough to spark revolution and new religion, yet we like to keep similar sentiments to the confines of greeting cards and coffee mugs. What does that mean – to belong to others?
When you get down to it, a large chunk of what we do to lead our lives successfully depends on the deposits and withdrawals of trust or reciprocal favours we exchange with other humans. Another way to define this give-and-take is the term ‘social capital’. Granted, we have done a fantastic job in our highly commodified Western culture to avoid these webs of relationships by means of money. If we are lost, cold, or hungry, we can use hard currency to fill our needs, no relationship needed. However I strongly believe, when push comes to shove – the “true true” as Tom Hank’s character says – relationships are all we are and all we have.
I never felt this reality so strongly as at the end of my Asian travels this past fall. After his brother’s wedding, my boyfriend returned home from Vietnam, leaving me to make the last leg of the journey, including a final visit with his family, solo. Despite no direct connection to me, these people blessed me to the point of embarrassment; the beautiful straw cone hat they shoved into my hands before I boarded my flight is still hung on my wall as a constant reminder of their hospitality and kindness. Yet my amazement only increased when I realized, these people were not even related to my boyfriend, but the family of a family friend! The thin strings of relationship on which I relied – connections far too abstract to ever be acknowledged on a LinkedIn account – were incredibly fragile, yet managed to hold me. There was absolutely nothing that obliged them to take care of me so well, no social capital, except for the request of people they trusted.
I have no doubt that any one in the backpacking community would have similar stories to this. As illogical as it sounds, this system ‘works’, time and again, far more frequently than it fails. What does amaze me, however, is the presence of this strange phenomenon in my own backyard of Lincoln Park. As we middle class folk flounder trying to wrap our heads around this, the poor intuitively get this. My neighbours stare at me when I talk about this in amazement: for them it’s not just common sense – it’s survival. It is well known that relationships with otherwise strangers who share your immediate siutation, rather than families or professional services, are what ultimately keep food on the table and your children in school, not paychecks. Once over coffee I asked a wonderful older Iraqi woman in my neighbourhood, who is known for her generosity and service to others, how she could give so much, even when it hurt her own welfare. She took my hand between hers and straightened every inch of her 4’10” frame, beaming, “Angelina don’t you see? We have nothing, I have nothing, nobody have nothing. All is a gift! I am theirs, they is mine, this is how the world works.” If only she could be summed up on a coffee cup!
In the current capitalist system, capital is always based on scarcity, and social capital is no exception. Somewhere, at some point, lines are drawn between who is in and who is out in the circle of favours. Common sense shows that to ask for help too many times without ‘giving back’ is to risk the donor losing their sense of generosity. Likewise, capitalism always allows businesses to ‘externalize’ production consequences from budgets, essentially rationalizing “this isn’t my problem”.
These are all excellent reasons for why a philosophy of grace is a terrible philosophy for any sustainable business plan. In true community there is no tally possible, and absolutely no externalization. The world, and its people, is fundamentally ‘our problem’. Naturally, this is no shallow risk; our stuff, our security, and even our reputation is threatened. Yet as this remarkable little Iraqi grandmother said, the risk is worth it because we belong to others every bit as much as much as they belong to us. Charity doesn’t even start to cover it.
It makes me think, when we practice hospitality with our houses, our stuff, our connections, and so on, we’re giving others complete license to be an inconvenience. It is good to ponder, then, when, where and with whom do we draw the line of whom is given this license? Which people in our social sphere are considered ‘our problem’? With whom do we invest our reputation, our identity, and our prospects? And to whom do we belong?
This is undeniably risky. But we owe no less – we owe our very selves.