In Rob Walker’s article in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine about Freecycle, a Craigslist or Meetup style Internet matching service designed to help you give away stuff you want to get rid of, founder Deron Beal suggests that his organization has been successful because the sacrifice-free generosity it enables makes people feel good.
Whatever attracts people to join, part of what keeps them involved, Beal says, is something they probably didn’t expect: the moment when someone thanks you backward and forward for giving him something you planned to throw away. “There’s a sort of paradigm shift in your brain: ‘Wow, that feels really good,’ ” Beal says. “That’s what I think is fueling this absurd amount of growth we’ve had.”
It seems to me the analysis of this could be pushed a little further. Sure, it’s great to earn approbation for being charitable simply by redirecting your trash pickup. And it’s pleasing to simplify and streamline your belongings, something that can be surprisingly hard to do because of the reponsibility we may feel toward what we buy. Generally we think we are buying stuff with some use in mind, even though the actual motives have more to do with indulging some fantasy about who we want to become or who we might have been. That fantasy is enacted upon purchase, but the purchased object lingers on even after the fantasy fades, cluttering up our apartments—and our consciousness, when that fantasy curdles into disillusionment and we are embarrassed or taunted by what we wished we were or what the object reminds us we are not. It sits waiting to be use in the way we promised ourselves would when we bought it. My Russian-English dictionary, for instance, always annoys me with how quickly I gave up on learning Russian. But I don’t want to throw it away—not only will that seem a waste in the abstract, but it’s an admission of surrender. So I hang on to it, refusing to give up on the utility still entombed within it. That utility, which was the alibi for indulging the fantasy, becomes a trap until we can find some way of dissipating it.
One way is to find some other person to assume that burden, who by taking the object from you is making their own promise to use it in the way you couldn’t. This salvages the whole project, allowing you to part with the good without admitting to yourself complete failure. You’ve just changed one fantasy about yourself (whatever dream was evoked by the object) for another (the pleasure of being a benevolent gift-giver, the pleasure of feeling useful), and it’s no longer your fault if the thing is never really used for its ostensible purpose. Giving things away allows us to use them up without having to consume them in the way they are intended to be used. I use up the squash racket not by playing squash and wearing it out but by giving it to a stranger who now is making an implicit promise to play squash, taking me off the hook. So the gift is not as free as it may seem, it comes with the hidden burden of abandoned dreams and the duty to make good on those dreams for someone else as well as yourself. So the goods exchanged through Freecycle threaten to become freighted with serial failures, all the previous owner’s as well as your incipient own. But this probably doesn’t happen—giving something away for free seems to remove that thing from the money-for-pleasure cycle that renders the abstract notion of utility seem so important. The gesture, the effort to find a home for something rather than merely trash it, springs you from the trap, and that, I think, explains the unexpected elation Freecyclers feel.