I have an “ism” to talk about today.
Transactionalism: Life considered as a series of deposits and withdrawals.
Not Norwegian Fredrik Barth’s anthropological transactionalism, of which I know almost nothing. (And I’m also not sure how he escaped from Wayne’s basement, but that is a whole other story.)
I’m writing about relationships here; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Tit for tat…Wikipedia says this was originally an English saying meaning “equivalent retaliation.”(!!!)
The more I look, the more undercurrents of this I find. In biology, there is a concept called “reciprocal altruism,” a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time (Wikipedia again). And wouldn’t it be great if the other organism gave back a little more than I gave it: fitness + interest, the “banker organism” has that figured out really well!
It all feels kinda dirty to me, something I tolerate in business, and absolutely cringe at in personal life. In business it can be mostly harmless, a simple form of cooperation, as in “hey buddy from the business next door, I have a client that I could hook you up with, if you’ll help me get that other client I’ve been chasing…” And it can range to truly distasteful backstabbing and ladder climbing; ala some ‘80’s Wall Street clichés. There is a temptation to see people as transactional devices. This can lead to different moral sets in different settings, a chameleon nature, as we try to get what we want out of others.
Transactionalism is life oversimplified; everything in pluses and minuses, deposits and withdrawals. And when poorly practiced it is so transparent as to make one feel used, commoditized, expended for transactional worth.
There is a beautiful way of seeing beyond transactionalism. I mean beautiful because this way carries meaning to our individual contribution and how we get along.
Life’s real deposits and withdrawals are a vastly complex flow of interrelated wholes. I know I keep saying this, and here I am looking at it from a different perspective. You and me, our relationship over time, is one example of flowing, weaving, interrelated wholes. You could keep a ledger of that relationship, but see the nuance that would be lost?
Now think of us all, together, making a great river. Think of our relationships over time. And remember, I’m always using a really big view of relationships: it’s you and me, you and us all, we and the trees; a world of subjects. We affect each others’ courses in complex ways and no accountant can keep a balance. The flow has causal links, but their complexity is unmappable.
I guess some in subatomic physics may even say at the bottom is a lack of causality, but that is too much for me to bear.
When we see this way; that of a great river; it crosses with morality: goodness to others for the sake of that goodness alone. Those of us with religion know this and sometimes we forget its true meaning: goodness as positive energy to the collective flow, and not as a transactional relationship with God. The idea of St. Peter at the gates with a ledger, although simple to understand, sells God short. Prayer as a form of bargaining does the same.
But I do not want this view to be only argued from spirituality or religion, I want it to be about our health, now, and about life in synthesis. So I have one big assertion and a widely applicable example.
The most fulfilling relationships are those where the individual contributes to the health of the noble system without regard to the net flow of their transactions, and where the individual has tied their health to the health of the noble system.
You could replace “fulfilling” with “meaningful,” “healthy,” “moral,” or “sustainable,” depending on your lens. “Noble” intends a system with good purpose. And system is any collection of more than one, all the way up to the universe.
Each member of a healthy family system contributes positive actions into the system with the health of the family foremost in mind, and no ledger balance to be settled. The health of the family member is dependent on the health of the family. The purpose of the family is noble, most clearly felt when there are children.
This is love. I don’t need to explain this.
And why can’t this same dynamic cross over to business? It seems to me the culture of the business needs to meet three criteria: love for others, a strong connection between individual and collective health, and noble purpose.
Or to say it another way, the cause must be noble; the belonging felt, the task valued.