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Kyle Eller: Bringing the ‘logic of gift’ into our lives in the new year

I have mentioned before that I’m a big geek. For instance, I am likely the only Catholic newspaper editor in Christendom who, in 2016, does his writing and editing in Emacs, a computer program which I’m tempted to call the greatest software yet written.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

That may sound grandiose, since Emacs is a text editor, one of the lowliest and most basic forms of software. But calling Emacs a text editor is roughly equivalent to describing an aircraft carrier the size and complexity of a small city as “a boat” — it’s true, as far as it goes, but it obscures a true sense of the size and scope of the thing.

Emacs is ancient in computer terms, dating back to the 1970s, when “mice” were just rodents, not computer accessories. Emacs is still designed to do just about anything you can imagine (and likely things you can’t) with text, with great efficiency, without your fingers leaving the keyboard. In the hands of a competent user, its speed and efficiency can look like magic.

But Emacs didn’t stop in the 1970s. For all these years it has been improved, expanded, extended and hacked on. It can manage your files, track your calendar, do spreadsheets and accounting, read the news, check your email, connect you to online chats, and much, much more. People are only slightly joking when they call it an operating system.

It’s not for everyone, and I won’t bore you with all the reasons it’s awesome, but for a certain kind of person it’s an incredible power tool.

One of the remarkable things about it, and the one I want to reflect on in light of our faith, is how all this is accomplished: Hundreds of skilled programmers over the years have volunteered to contribute to this program, which is given away for free, right down to the source code.

Actually, by my own choice, most of the software I use daily is done the same way. You very likely use some of it daily too, perhaps without knowing it. Much of the Internet is run on Linux, a free, open source operating system. Similar things could be said of many of our gadgets. The Internet itself is a product of a similar kind of openness, built around open protocols and file formats and languages that different kinds of computers and programs can freely use.

Of course anyone who has sung in a choir or participated in a serious volunteer project can easily grasp some of the beauty and joy of this, but it seems to run up against some currents of American culture that measure everything by transactions and the bottom line. People often seem to think nothing good can happen unless someone is hoping to make great heaping gobs of cash from it.

In fact, that isn’t true.

I think often of my first “real” job, where I began using professional graphic design tools, each costing nearly $1,000 per person, per version. Now anyone can obtain for free high quality programs that do the same kind of work, pop them on a flash drive and use them anywhere.

This ethos of cooperative, volunteer work, freely shared with the community, has put productive, creative tools within reach of many people who could never have afforded them 20 years ago, a great gift to the world.

This is not to knock making money. Far from it. In fact these tools help people make money, from individuals to large, highly profitable businesses. Android phones are built on Linux. The open Internet has created opportunities for businesses small and large. Even Microsoft, long an implacable foe of open software, now embraces it in ways that make sense for them.

But more to the point, there is a sense of this “logic of gift” in good business, in the Catholic social vision. Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” He said the times demand that, in addition to traditional principles like transparency and honesty, “in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity.”

It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but someone finally explained it to me in a way I could grasp. Suppose someone opens a coffee shop down the street. Naturally and rightly she wants to make a profit, both to earn a dignified living and to build the business. But of course she wants something more than that. She wants to serve her neighbors, giving them delicious mochas and friendly smiles, a warm place to chat with a friend, a happy place to work.

A reductionist view that makes money the measure of everything might say she could make more with cheaper coffee beans and less cozy seating and by paying employees the least she could get away with. Restoring the “logic of the gift” gives other goods, other benefits, their proper place alongside the ones you can measure on a balance sheet. It restores a sense of businesses as integrated parts of their communities ordered to the common good.

Our “bottom line,” “what’s in it for me” mentality tends to seep unbidden into how we think in other spheres of life, too, and maybe as the new year begins, it’s worth a quick examination of conscience. The Catholic vision sees creation itself, human life, and especially grace and salvation as gratuitous gifts of God. It sees the highest vision of love as the gift of self, shown most fully in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

If we’re still looking for New Year’s resolutions, finding places to give ourselves away just for the good of others should be on the list. Our parishes and communities are full of ministries and programs where we can do just that.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]