Can You Do Me A Favor?
by Gail Bangert
How can transform our Community
The Cape Cod Time Bank has been launched, and it’s getting people’s attention. The idea is simple: members give an hour of service to someone else and are entitled to receive an hour of service from another member in return. If you’re new to the concept, you might be wondering, “What’s the big deal? Countless organizations already enlist volunteers or even pay people to do the right thing.”
The difference between time banking and many other ways of helping people is subtle, but profound. Time banking works because everyone involved is valued. Consider for a moment the way we usually think about giving. “It’s better to give than to receive,” our simple mantra for teaching compassion, inadvertently sums up how demeaning it can be to need help. Whether the receiver is a senior citizen asking for help with home repairs or a poor person in need of free professional services, when only one person has the opportunity to give, the other feels useless or less valued. People want to give back.
This is the insight that Edgar Cahn, creator of time banking, gained lying in a coronary care unit. In his book, No More Throw-Away People, he explains that before the heart attack that landed him in the hospital in 1980, he had proudly spent his life helping others by fighting for justice.
Cahn worked with Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department and Sargent Shriver in the War on Poverty. He challenged the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the hunger and injustice faced by Native Americans. With his wife, he created the Antioch School of Law with a unique teaching law firm that represented thousands of poor people. Cahn realized in his hospital bed that being a person who could do things that other people needed was central to his self-worth, and he didn’t like feeling useless.
Cahn’s other key insight was about money. Perhaps you’re content in the knowledge that you have the means to buy the services that you need, that the economic market values your contribution, and that you can value others by paying them in turn.
The catch is that in the economic realm, not only commodities but also human abilities are valued based on their scarcity. Scarce items have a high value. Abundant items have a low value. When judged against this standard, the most common human capacities, like caring for each other, are devalued.
In the economic marketplace, values are assigned in a hierarchy, and everyone is well aware of how high or low they fall on the ladder. In a time bank, an hour of service given by one person is equal to an hour of service given by any other person. The hierarchy is gone.
For me, the truly fascinating element of time banking is this reshuffling of the social deck. We trudge or glide through our days, the heaviness of our steps determined to some degree by our status and the amount of money in our pockets. Our assigned rankings inevitably color our interactions, in spite of egalitarian myths.
That a time bank member, perhaps previously unknown to another, can step into that other person’s life and be judged by a single act of kindness (and maybe how the recipient’s garden looks without weeds) seems to me an amazing gift of fresh perspective.
When my husband, John Bangert, first shared the time banking concept with me, and announced his determination to start a time bank on Cape Cod, I found the idea immediately appealing. This is a remarkable statement for me to make after living with a community organizer for thirty four years.
The Five Core Values of Time Banking
We can all be valued contributors