Here's the problem with the social economy. If your only reason for giving to, spending time with, or helping someone is what you get out of the relationship or what you might get back some day, you will be living a very dissatisfied life. To be fair, I don't think that's what was really happening in this particular situation with my neighbor, I think she truly would not have wanted to help the girl scout troop anyway and this was a handy excuse not to. But let's look at some of the pitfalls of a social economy.
- My value in my self is inherently higher. I remember that time I sacrificed washing 3 loads of dishes one day last week, but the last two days that my husband helped with the laundry are quickly fading from my mind. We naturally remember and focus on our own actions so we automatically value our own social net worth as higher than it truly is.
- Distraction and disruption. When we are playing the social economy, we need to remember that the dozens of meals sent to a family with a newborn are going to be forgotten quickly. That family is focused on survival, not sending thank you cards, or repaying the favor. The people that need the most help are the ones that are least likely to be able to pay you back.
- Paying it forward only works so well. Paying it forward is a great idea, as long as you don't expect to be the recipient of the cycle. If you encourage your friends and neighbors to "pay forward" their gratitude, you might help 10-20 times as many people, but that doesn't mean you will actually get anything back. There have been a few pyramid schemes going around Facebook (mainly a "kids book exchange") and I think we all know how those pyramid schemes turn out (only the initial few benefit until it fizzles out). So, feel free to pay it forward, but don't count on that cycle coming all the way back around to benefit you.
- Any economy is subject to the demands of its consumers. I can barter or trade with my neighbors for whatever I like, but eventually, they will realize I am human, fallible, and somewhat irritating (just as they are). So no matter how well I trade in the current social economy: relationships will fail, people will move on or drift apart, and that micro-economy will break down. Instead of focusing on the social economy, why not focus on the social relationship - building up each other, growing in love and respect for one another, being more understanding of our own humanity and brokenness. That's the kind of social economy that I want to trade in.
So what should we use instead of a social economy? What about a Christian economy?
Jesus said to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Rather than expecting to receive from all you've planted here on the earth, why not expect some eternal rewards? I have the feeling that you'll be a lot more grateful here on Earth too. Love your enemies, be a peacemaker, be merciful, give in secret, pray for your neighbors, and do everything without complaining or arguing.
And for those who are "shocked" that a Christian would say something so human and unenlightened, please don't be. We all have our particular difficulties in living as Christ lived. Christians are not, and should not claim to be perfect people. We are incredibly imperfect, broken, and dying souls who were resurrected through a faith in an amazing sacrifice. There's nothing we can do to repay Him, so while we strive for perfection, we often fall short. He is redeeming us every day, and we can only hope to continue growing and maturing as we fight the good fight.