Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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Barter fever

Contractual matters govern my life. In a world in which I have faith in some things divine and a much shorter list of things human, one saint I would always canonize is the Saint of Mutual Agreed Obligation. I believe that when two adults can reach a contract after free negotiation, and then honor their respective obligations without fuss or stinting, the world becomes, for one brief moment, that much more civilized than it was before the deal was struck. I don't mean, here, the fine-print (we lawyers tend to call them "adhesive") forms with which one is besieged in day to day dealings with large corporations, many of which are devoted to detailing the ways in which the entity with more bargaining power is going to make as little promise as possible and extract as much obligation as possible from the individual with less. Rather, I mean when two ordinary, every day people agree to do an exchange of something, and they actually do it.

My life has been spent with nearly no debt, and yet drenched in debt. I am one of those "no credit card balance", "drive a modest car and pay it off" and "work down that mortgage" types of person. In the go-go stock market of 1998, when everyone I knew was suddenly enriched with stocks, I seemed like rather a tortoise as I paid down my obligations and kept my long term planning moderate. In the odd environment of 2002, when everyone I know will be postponing retirement because their stocks crashed, my boring life's philosophy suddenly looks like genius. In fact, it's not foolishness or genius, it's just a deep-seated dislike for risk and a deep fondness for paying off obligations.

At the same time, I feel "drenched" in the enforcement of debt obligations. My whole career has been built, in one way or another, around trials and transactions which enforce or create debt. I am a commercial litigator, which is a very grandiose way of saying that when folks get into business disputes, they phone me. For eighteen years, I have been the happy beneficiary of a fortunate coincidence. You see, when a client phones me who is owed a debt, some Providence ensures that each client I take to court is entirely right, and being victimized by an unjust debtor who should pay its debts. When a client phones me from the debtor side of the table, by contrast, my poor debtor client is merely another victim of ruthless creditor maltreatment, being wrongly accused of owing something it does not owe. I am thankful that my clients are always so right when we go to court together. I only wish that judges always agreed with the obvious hand of Providence which has selected such virtuous clients for me.

As the years have gone on, I have developed the deepest respect to for the idea that something is sacred about an obligation freely undertaken and freely performed. I am not going to try to put legal advice stuff in my post, but I believe I can say generically that I love about our legal system that the importance of such contracts is integral to everything.

I find that outside the legal context, though, many other contexts
must recognize the essential sanctity of two persons in agreement.
No two friends, no two intimates, and no two strangers can accomplish any really meaningful non-emotional transaction without some element of contract. I have known scads of couples who could ascend every passionate and emotional height, and yet not sustain a relationship because the couple was incapable of making and keeping simple agreements. My view is jaundiced by the way contract flows through my veins like platelets. But I am continually reminded that even outside "legal obligation", the idea of mutual exchanged promises, freely kept, is a key value. One of the things I dislike about our cultural crisis of responsibility is that moral promises are no longer considered important. To me, though, it is very important that one should make as few promises as possible (promises being a profound thing), and then work to keep them as assiduously as possible. I wish I always lived by that value, but I know I always mean to do so, and frequently succeed. I also try to follow a corollary. When one must break a promise, do it quickly, cleanly, after much reflection and without duplicity, whining or needless recrimination. In life as in law there are times when breaking an agreement is the only moral or feasible option left. The sanctity of mutual agreement, though, tells me breach of agreement should be the last, and not the first, resort, and it should be done with the greatest delicacy when possible.

I must address, however, the problem of what I call "acquisitiveness". By this I mean the tendency to view all life in terms of "what can I get for x". It is one thing to strike contracts with people. It is another to see all life as one endless flea market bargaining session. I dislike for example, emotional debts not arising from contract. I dislike them with a vengeance. People who try to tie love or emotional comfort or passion or even a sense of family to a narrowly "what will you give me for this" bug me a bit. Already, our established societal institutions, marriage, friendship, religious institutions, have some uneasy components of exchange. I'm not tackling such embedded institutions. I'm really talking about the mentality that every human response from the giver shall only be justified by some material or emotional gain for the recipient. I do not believe it is an accident that interns, for example, are attracted to powerful politicans, who might give them reflected status, or conversely, that politicians might be attracted to interns who might give them unqualified approval, to say it rather politely. I cannot put my finger on it, but this seems rather like an unhealthy "acquisition" by both parties. We all have known the odd soul who imagines that s/he should do favors for others only to create some large savings bank of reciprocal favors due. If I worship at the altar of agreed exchange, I blaspheme at the temple of needless acquisitiveness. I cannot define all the distinctions, and the areas are filled with gray. But I know that I seek to live in a world of gentlepersonly agreements, and not in a world of emotional flea markets.

I ponder this idea a lot lately. I have not defined my terms yet.
But I will post this to help me with my pondering. I am always wary of my interaction with others, to the extent that I want to be "liked" or "enjoyed" or "admired". I always disparage the desire for fame, for the same reason. Even here on LiveJournal, when I post publicly, I have to admit to myself that some posts are intended to solicit comments, to cause people to enjoy reading, in hope that I will be able to interact with them. This seems, on some level, the sort of "acquisitiveness" I profess to despise. Like a lot of people, and certainly like a lot of people on LiveJournal, I like the idea that people might enjoy my journal. But is that form of shameless vanity excusable? It's hard to say. We are social creatures, but must I be so needy?

In general, I excuse myself (being, as usual, much quicker to throw holy water on myself than anyone else might be) by saying that the LJ experience is both a personal writing exercise and a way to interact with really cool people. This is not "acquisitive", this is kinda like being asked to be at the sessions for the recording "We are the World". Lots of cool singers, even the Boss shows, we're all together, it's for a great cause, and who cares if the song is mauldin. This is just a way to win friends and influence people. But still, the aura of barter, present in any creative expression, is sadly present here. On some level, I want to be liked (in some instances, liked very much indeed). On some level, this is the non-contractual emotional "neediness" I find an inappropriate "flea market barter" rather than a noble contractual interaction.

To change the topic slightly, tonight I am beside myself because my exchange, in which I promised to send a scrapbook full of poems, bad art and photos in return for "something odd and wonderful" the exchangers made, tonight netted two incredible art pieces. My scrapbooks are in progress, and they will be exactly as promised, but what I have promised is so much less impressive than what was delivered to me. This happens to me always in mail artish stuff, because I am utterly without talent. I am definitely in the abstract of the "give better than one receives" school of thought, but it is inescapable that I will have "gotten the better" of these bargains. In life, I'd like to never get the better of any bargains. I'd like to always give more than I got. Yet what is the point of my oft-repeated admiration for "art without judgment" if I am really bothering to "tote up" what I am getting and feeling guilty about it?

So the mouse trap springs on my construct. I believe in avoiding emotional flea marketing, and yet what is this desire to be liked? I believe in meeting one's agreements, and yet is that enough when people do so much more than they agreed? Even accepting that I view most of life as non-contractual, is my construct about the sanctity of contract so flawed that I should abandon it away from the workplace? It's all very confusing, and, I'm better at "spotting issues" here than in solving them.

But I do know that I love my exchanges, and I love my LJ interactions, and I love all sorts of exchange filled things in life. But I pause, just a little, to wonder if I am giving as good as I get, in every facet of my life. I also wonder if acquisition, rather than money, is not the root of all evil, and yet I still feel that if God is Truth, and Truth is God, there still is some sense in which God and Truth are both Contract. I still would canonize Contract as my guiding saint, and yet,is Contract part of my redemption, or part of my prison?

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