The Freedom of Reciprocity

watching fireworks, sharing

We as a nation take some time off to enjoy summer activities with family and friends to celebrate Independence Day. Almost 250 years ago a group of scattered Colonialist got together to declare their independence from a faraway ruling king. The war won, they took it upon themselves the task of self-rule. History shows that although they did win independence from the British Empire, they still had the difficult work of strengthening the interdependence of thirteen very diverse former colonies.

The Founding Fathers struggled for a way to make this newfound interdependence a viable way of governing. Finding common ground proved to be an effort worthwhile for the wellbeing of the whole. The citizens of the new country were subject to a federal government that was based on the interdependence of the differing states. Interdependence was established, independence maintained, and the experiment in balance began.

However, balancing interdependence and independence was an experiment that had to be recognized and accepted. It wasn’t easy for the new citizens to give up their hard-earned independence. This was the freedom they fought for. As they settled in the wilderness, they brought with them an ethic of being fiercely self-sufficient. Independence was their credo. “Live free or die.”

How to become conscious of our connections

Life has changed from the times of the pioneer families hacking out an existence on homesteaded land. We are now a nation made up of vast networks of interdependence. Our food supply spans the world. Thousands contribute to the meal we sit down to eat. Our health care is based on the knowledge and findings of thousands more. Roads and airports allow us to move goods and services. Our homes are in neighborhoods, school districts, cities, and towns, counties, states. With a few clicks, everyone can connect to the vast web of the internet.

Even though interdependence is obvious, it is hard for me to imagine myself as part of a greater whole. Also, it’s hard to imagine not only being a part of the whole, but being a part that makes a difference. I am striving to see myself, with my unique circumstances and experiences, with certain responsibilities. At the same time, I want to live consciously aware of being a part of the greater whole. A whole where my existence and the existence of the whole matters.

How can I generate the awareness of being interconnected with a greater whole? I have been working to discover who I really am as an individual. The individual I am trying to discover is not separate, but a part of the whole.


I have found that the practice of gratitude is a significant step. When I am grateful for the meal I am eating, I become aware of how so many contribute to the nutrition that keeps my body healthy. I remember the cook, the shopper, and the cashier at the supermarket. They are people I know. I can thank them and let them know I notice their effort.

There are many more than those I encounter in person. For instance, I don’t know who stacked the food on the shelves at the supermarket or who trucked it there. Someone built the highways for the truckers. I think of the farmer who planted and the pickers who harvested. I think of the plants who gave themselves so I can eat. The many gifts that plants give, oxygen, carbon storage, photosynthesis, erosion control, and shade. There seems no end to the gifts I have received to make this meal possible. I rely on so many.

Gratitude has opened my world from my own dinner plate to an immense network which supplies my food. Not only that, the practice of gratitude has also helped me to become aware of many more who contribute to my wellbeing. Besides the food I eat, I have received an education, health care, and services. Entertainment and information are at my fingertips. Enjoying nature and clean air and water are privileges I enjoy. Because I receive so much, much is asked of me in return.

Not taking, but receiving and giving

On the other hand, indiscriminately taking what I want is not the way I want to live. I am not taking but receiving the gifts of the efforts of countless others. Interdependence is based on reciprocity. There is mutuality in giving and receiving. Seeing this reciprocity brings me to the question, “What do I have to give?”

Each of us has our own gifts. We give our time and life when we go to work and do our job well. Teachers give their students the gifts of their time and attention and what they teach them. The students take these gifts with them and can give them to others.

Bus drivers take others to places they want to go. Secretaries make things flow in the office. Those in business serve us by getting to us what we need. Caring for a child or a loved one, we not only give our time, but we also give our attention and love. Health professionals help us to stay healthy and heal when we are not well.

Interdependence at Home

My reflection on interdependence has brought me to think of those closest to me, those with whom I live, my household. Even though we give a great part of our energy and time to making a living, we may undervalue the gifts we receive and give at home. Becoming aware of how the members of a household work together for the benefit of the whole and each one’s wellbeing is a valuable lesson for me in interdependence.

I live in a unique situation. It is a spiritual community with eleven members. Even though my situation may be different from yours, I think that there are a lot of similarities. In every household there is a reciprocity among those living there. What I have found is that I often take contributions for granted. Many times, I don’t even notice. When I do notice, I realize that it is important to disregard the concept of fairness and replace it with responsibility. Everyone gives what she can and receives what she needs. There is no need to balance a leger. I have the responsibility to give what I can. This will change over time based on my ability and need.

All contributions make a difference

Sometimes I give more importance to some contributions than others. The contribution of those who work to bring in an income seems more important than the one who hangs the clothes on the clothesline.  With reflection I see that everyone gives her time and energy.

This time and energy is given for the good of all. The income supports us, and the laundry is done. When I put a value judgment to each contribution, I not only devalue other’s contributions, but also my own. All the jobs that need to be done in the household need to be done by someone. Who am I to judge what is more important? Who can go to work If the laundry doesn’t get done? To help get a bigger perspective, I do my household chores with the thought that this is a service to all. My turn to wash the dishes, my opportunity to serve.

There has always been a division of labor. However, there is no longer a need to get stuck in outdated assigned roles. Now what jobs need to be done and who does them is a conscious decision. This will help us to learn not to devalue the gifts we give at home with our time and energy. All contributions are important. The household depends on it. Our lives work smoothly when everyone contributes what she can. To do this takes an awareness of our interdependence. It also requires good communication and thinking of others.

The gifts of honesty, kindness and caring

There are other ways that we can give our gifts, even when our capacity to work is limited. We can give with our presence. What I mean by giving with our presence is offering to others simply by living the best life we can. This can be practiced in simple conscious acts.

Being a teacher, I learned many lessons. When I taught a 5-year-old how to use the claw part of the hammer to take out a peg he had hammered, I wondered “who taught me?” Then I saw him show the child next to him how to do it, but she had already figured it out from watching. There are teachers throughout our life, and we teach each other.

There are other lessons than the practical ones of earning a living and contributing to the work that keeps the household running smoothly. Learning lessons in honesty, kindness, and taking care of others were gifts I received. They are gifts that I can give back and pay forward. These are valuable gifts in this chaotic world where it seems any behavior is accepted. Everyone needs the opportunity to be treated honestly and kindly. Many need to be taught by example.

I remember a lesson in honesty my father gave. My brother was hit by a car on his bicycle. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt. When the insurance agent came to negotiate the claim, my father said that no one was hurt and therefore there were no expenses. He did not feel he was entitled to the money, so he refused it.

Making the world a better place

This lesson has stayed with me. I learned not to take what wasn’t mine. This respect for others showed me that I’m not in this life by myself. I am here in interdependence with countless others. When I take what is not mine, I deprive someone who needs it. Even though I realize I still have much room for improvement, I try to live this lesson daily. My energy and effort go out to humanity. It helps make the world a better place. It helps build the trust that the world so needs.

Likewise, it is the same with all my efforts to expand my consciousness. Realizing I am far from being a realized being doesn’t deter me. I think the gift is with the struggle, the effort to expand my consciousness beyond where I have been before. The work of countless others makes my work possible. Standing on their efforts and sacrifice, I send it forward to those who will take it farther than I can.

With this effort to expand my human potential comes a greater love and connection for those who are in need. Even when I enjoy good health, occasional pain reminds me of those who are sick and in constant pain. I send them energy and light to bear their burdens. Having a good night’s sleep, I remember those who are up with babies and the sick. Also, the night workers who clean, deliver and unload goods and stock shelves. Walking to work, I think of commuters who are on the freeways, mornings and evenings. They are giving their time to make others’ lives better. I can shine my light on them.

The gift of paying attention and listening

Paying attention to those I encounter daily is another gift I can give. Looking at the teller in the bank, I thank her for her service. I wave at the mail carrier letting her know I appreciate receiving the mail. Smiling at the toddler in the shopping cart in front of me in line, I try to help him have a better day. Perhaps most important, being silent so I can listen carefully to what others are saying is an important way of paying attention.

Perhaps listening attentively to others is the hardest one for me, but I think it a gift worth giving. I need to set aside the thoughts that circle inside my head, and really listen. Imagine a world where we all felt heard. Once effective communication is established our words can have more value.

Perhaps I am a dreamer. Although I dream I also have much hope when I see how humanity, the earth and all life is interdependent. Our very existence depends on each other. Becoming aware of this has the potential of creating a positive force of love. It is the seed of a new freedom. I am free because you are free. I receive much and I give what I can. Even though my gifts may be relatively small, they are hard earned and given freely. I thank my blessing of being a part of the awesome evolving, interdependent creation.

About the Author(s)

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Diana Autumn lives in a spiritual community in Southern California. She likes trees, walking and being with friends.