Being Indebted Is My Real Wealth

I’m distressed that academic conventions seem to preclude, or at least discourage, acknowledgment that the work I will present to my dissertation committee is not, properly speaking, mine.

“My” project involves spiking seawater samples with methyl mercury. My background is environmental health, not analytical chemistry. I don’t have the skills to handle methyl mercury safely. It’s dangerous stuff. In 1997, Karen Wetterhahn, a seasoned inorganic chemist at Dartmouth College, died after spilling a few drops of dimethylmercury onto her gloved hand. I have contracted with Brooks Rand Labs in Seattle, WA. Technicians there take the risks for me.

In fact, they do much much more. Staff at Brooks Rand Labs has given me tips for things I’d overlooked in my literature review and even shaped my study design. They are collecting the seawater from Puget Sound, filtering it, homogenizing my samples, centrifuging them, taking the measurements, and documenting the results. My role is that I had an original idea, found money from student loans to pay for it (thanks to my financial aid department staff and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation), and will write up the results in a way the situates them in the broader public health context. For my efforts, I will receive a PhD (Insha’Allah). For theirs, they receive a paycheck.

Brooks Rand Labs was surprisingly forthcoming when I asked them what they made: the techs, most of whom have a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, earn $37,270/year, more for managerial-level staff. Is that really adequate compensation for risking one’s life for science? How can I share the rewards with them in proportion to their contributions?

My classmates and I mulled these questions. What part of our work is ever ours? How do we make our co-workers visible? How do we thank our co-workers in meaningful ways — not just empty gestures like symbolically linking to them online? Should we accept academic honors and credentials at all, knowing that we are standing in for the work of others? We don’t have answers, but we have stories and role models.

We remembered together the late Adrienne Rich, who was offered the National Book Award in 1974. According to R. Baird Shuman’s “Great American Writers,” instead of accepting it as an individual, she called to the stage Audre Lorde and Alice Walker (who had also been nominated) and together they accepted the award on behalf of all women.

My professor, Joy Ackerman, reminded me of these words from compline, an Episcopal prayer said at bedtime: “Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.”

Perhaps cultivating gratitude is one piece of the solution. When I was an exchange student in Japan, my host family taught me to say the word “itadakimasu” before eating anything. There is no exact equivalent in English. I believe that “I gratefully receive,” or “I acknowledge what I am taking,” comes closest.  Itadakimasu can also be used to express appreciation for any gift that feeds the soul. Yoshimasa Machida’s essay, “Thank You Nature For This Meal,” resonates with my understanding of this practice of gratitude.

I recently led a reflection with my classmates , where we closed our eyes and tried to name all those for whose support we wish to say itadakimasu. We began with our families, our teachers and mentors, our research librarian (the award-winning Jean Amaral), those whose ideas laid the intellectual foundation for our research…then my colleague pointed out the obvious, “This will never end. The list just keeps expanding the more we think about it.” Exactly.

In closing, my classmate Hilary Booker’s favorite quote from Martin Prechtel: “… you go around trying to give back what fed you in your time of need. But that’s no good. Not because you don’t owe us, which you do, but because you must remain in our debt… every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else…To get out of debt means you don’t want to be part of life … The idea is to get so entangled in debt that no normal human can possibly remember who owes whom what, and how much.”
Sasha Adkins and Antioch New England’s Spring 2012 Environmental Studies Dissertation Seminar participants. Thank you, Paul, for the title.

9 Responses

  1. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    I really love that quote from Martin Prechtel.It is also what is considered “gifting” or the “gift economy” and indeed the whole idea of “exchange” is very class based. It has always bugged me when I’ve been offered work exchange, that I know it’s oftentimes a pound of flesh rather than being able to contribute according to my abilities.That, I believe is centered in more of a middle class cultural belief system. The lesbian community (as far as I know) came up with “sliding scale,” paying what you can afford with no strings attached.I don’t have any negative or guilt feelings if I can’t exchange on an equal basis.

    I don’t want to stray from your essay which I think is about gratitude and I am grateful everyday which makes me happy.Thanks for acknowledging those that give so others can contribute what they can also.

    1. Sasha Adkins
      Sasha Adkins

      Yes, Lena. Have you read Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”? A quote from that text underlies Antioch’s curriculum: “The gift must keep moving…” Whatever we receive, we must pass on. This is what we reflect on when we each offer a semester of full-time voluntary service to an organization in our field of research.
      How true that too often people’s gifts remain hidden when it is assumed, because they are of modest means, that all they have to offer is unskilled labor. How do we go about uncovering what people have to offer? I’d love to see an alternative economy that goes even beyond the sliding scale to ask, “What will you contribute to our event tonight?” For some that might be money, for others, perhaps they can name other gifts they bring, and as you say, offer them without guilt or shame, knowing that they will be received with gratitude.

  2. I have read studies suggesting that cultivating gratitude is a key way to lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and improve overall well-being.

    I sometimes feel guilty that I have a good life when so many don’t; but then it seems that guilt means I won’t be appreciating what I have.

    It also seems that Americans have the opposite of gratitude; they walk around with a sense of entitlement and/or the fear that someone else may be getting an undeserved benefit, hence resistance to paying taxes or a social safety net.

    1. Sasha Adkins
      Sasha Adkins

      Perhaps gratitude leads to trust in an economy of abundance instead of scarcity, where we don’t need to fear and horde but can derive delight from letting the gift pass from hand to hand. I definitely find gratitude life-giving.

      I struggle with guilt, too, and I have found it contracts my spirit, focusing my energy on me. Gratitude helps me get expansive again.

  3. Jim Senter

    Interestingly, this is exactly the point David Graeber makes from the archeological record in his massive work Debt: the First 5,000 Years. This has been true ever since money was invented. The royal debt the payment of which founded the Bank of England, can never be repaid, because if it were, the Bank would cease to exist. [I don’t quite understand why this is so, but I trust Graeber and others who have thought more deeply on these things than I.] We must remain in debt to one another. Exactly/

    Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly go into detail about the social construction of wealth in Unjust Deserts. The literature on these subjects is deep and rich. It’s high time it was more widely discussed. Thank you for bringing it up. 🙂

  4. Jane Spickett

    “Perhaps cultivating gratitude is one piece of the solution. ”

    I think about how entitlement (claimed or frustrated) shows up in different classes, and how expectations of white supremacy and heterosexism influence that. Regardless, though, of how any of us locate ourselves in that sometimes complex matrix, this I have found to be common: we often don’t let each other know that we are thankful.

    I teach a workshop based on the Buddhist practice of Metta (lovingkindness) in which, during the first session, we make a list of all to whom we are grateful; then we check off the people we’ve told. There is always a moment of surprise when we realize how many we have not told – and that’s just the ones we’re aware of! We then begin the practice of writing to those people.

    The expansive delight of Metta means that, over the weeks, we get to thank people we don’t know or even appreciate and, heart opening and hard though it is, even those who are difficult (in varying degrees!) and with whom we do not agree.

    And yes, the debt is never paid; but what happens is that there is an increasing awareness of the web of connection and the possibility of a regular practice of gratitude in action; and people are happier in the flow of giving and receiving.

    Thanks, Sasha.

    1. Sasha Adkins
      Sasha Adkins

      What a lovely practice! I know I don’t often enough express my gratitude for my “teachers” — those people who really challenge me. I am better at expressing it with people who are easy to love. And I like the connection you make explicit, about gratitude being one step to dismantling entitlement. Thanks for reading.

  5. Dennis Bushey

    This article presents evidence to the fundamental principle of oneness. There is no achievement without assistance from someone (parents, teachers, friends & confidants) No matter our title, we do not stand alone- except in our illusions. Would this then make everyone equally valuable = 1 class of people? Could making Gratitude a required course for any study help shift the societal mind set… even if it were ever so slightly?

    I found the quote by Martin Prechtel to be quite thought provoking. I hadn’t considered debt in this way before.
    Thanks for sharing.

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