My Buy Nothing Experiment

By Jeff Wenker

It’s easy to explain why The Buy Nothing Project has meant so much to me: Fun.

Example: someone on my local Buy Nothing Bainbridge Facebook page asked for a toilet paper roll thingy. I’d just seen a toilet paper roll springy thingy in my Junk Drawer (not to be confused with drawers where junk is kept). Later that day I met a total stranger at the Aquatic Center and made her smile by giving her a toilet paper roll springy thingy. I got something almost priceless for something almost worthless. A smile from a stranger is the first step toward friendship.

The Buy Nothing Project is hard to explain cuz it’s like a Friendship Borg where people you kinda know pop in to do and say funny, amazing things and then drift away leaving an ethereal vapor which transcends the digital world, enters our physical reality, and builds communities by transforming brains. Giving changed my brain. I believe this. Last month Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell spoke at the local high school during a leadership conference. Among other things, she talked about how altruism, or relational experiences, can trigger serotonin (dopamine) bursts in the brain and actually change the way our brain works. I’m not a neuroscientist (never played one on teevee), I’m a student-teacher with an abnormal brain who has become addicted to giving. I give credit to The Buy Nothing Project.

Eight years ago, a psychiatrist diagnosed me bipolar. Genetic, this seemed a life-sentence. Until recently I accepted it as such. Manic highs mixed with deep depressions, a moody rollercoaster predictable yet not; every period of elation inevitably followed by a crippling low, time and triggering circumstances unknown. I felt trapped, waiting for the descent, wondering how steep, prepared somewhat for its arrival because it had never not come. Now, though, here was a PhD telling me the altruistic acts Buy Nothing Bainbridge enabled me to perform spurred production of chemicals that actually helped heal my misfiring synapses.

Details: I am becoming a teacher, conducting my demonstration teaching at a Seattle public high school. My walk takes me along Alaskan Way, a street occupied by a not insignificant number of the city’s homeless, who, as they do, asked me for change. You can’t give change to everybody. Twelve years of Catholic school filled immense guilt reservoirs. I felt bad. I believe most people feel bad passing people they think they can’t help. It diminishes us. Given the chance, people would rather help people than not. The Buy Nothing Project gave me such a chance.

Jan and Dave stood in front of the telescopes by the Seattle Aquarium. I passed them every day, one day Jan smiled at me and I smiled back. It felt good. The next day, I stopped and gave Dave a dollar. Someone else stopped and gave Jan a bag, in the bag I saw a box of noodles. I asked them if they could boil water and they said yes. I had pasta, lots of people had pasta, I asked for pasta on Buy Nothing Bainbridge and wrote about this couple from Oklahoma who had lost their house and come to Seattle on the promise of a job, a promise broken.

Hope For Those Living on the Street. © Liesl Clark

Hope For Those Living on the Street. © Liesl Clark

My Buy Nothing group makes generosity easy. We gave Jan and Dave food, clothes, a tent, tarp, and a big blue backpack. More than anything, though, I’d like to think we gave them hope. They wanted to get to Sacramento to stay with Dave’s brother until they could get back on their feet. One morning they weren’t there, their spot empty. I walked around and saw the big blue backpack past the fountain, so explored. I met Rick and Randy who told me Jan and Dave got enough money together over the weekend to catch that bus to Sacto, and gave the backpack to them. Even those with little to give can give.

Things have meaning. Giving someone a dollar is different than giving someone a backpack or a guitar. Jessie stood in front of Starbucks with a plastic cup dangling from a stick, a sign saying “Fishing for Kindness” tucked in said cup. I’d stop and talk and one day asked him if there was anything he wanted, convinced now that Buy Nothing Bainbridge could provide anything. Jessie told me a year ago someone stole his guitar in Portland. He’d love a new guitar. I asked for one online and Ashley on Buy Nothing Bainbridge said she had one and met me on the ferry the next morning with it. On Alaskan Way, I walked toward Jessie and held the guitar aloft. He smiled then cried then told me it was the same color as the one he’d lost and then started to tune the guitar. I can’t tell you what song he played, I had to walk on before I broke down.

It made me happy to help Jessie. He shared his story with me as I am sharing mine with you. He eventually left A-Way. I’d like to think he went back to Coos Bay to be with his son and ex-girlfriend.

Who knows?

These are two stories; relatively good stories (in the ending if not the telling). There are others not yet good and not yet finished. There are thousands of these stories. But, there are millions of us. Not everyone has the capacity to give. Not everyone has the capacity to ask. The amazing thing about The Buy Nothing Project is how it provides access to those abilities, no matter who it is we may be.

In giving we are receiving. I believe giving changed me. Whether or not the science behind the change is true is irrelevant as long as I believe it’s true. Belief is hope and hope is key because hope becomes possibility. The Buy Nothing Project is a platform, an idea which makes the amazing possible. Buy Nothing Bainbridge makes me happy, being happy changes brains, changed brains make better communities, ergo: The Buy Nothing Project makes better communities. Quod erat demonstrandum, You’re welcome.

Jeff Wenker on the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry taking warm clothes to homeless men in Seattle. © Liesl Clark

Jeff Wenker on the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry taking warm clothes to homeless men in Seattle. © Liesl Clark

About Pioneering The Simple Life

Filmmaker, Writer, Catalyst for Social Change

6 comments on “My Buy Nothing Experiment

  1. Reblogged this on Welcome to our home… and commented:
    I absolutely love this story and I also have fallen in love, quickly, I might add, with this program: buy nothing project. WOW! What an inspiration.

  2. Hi I live in Riverton
    Can we join the group

  3. A very inspiring story. Thank you for telling it.

  4. Hi Katherine,

    Did you find your hyper-local Buy Nothing community group? Please have a look at the list, and copy/paste the link for your neighborhood into your browser, which will then give you an option to ‘request to join.’


    Also if you have already sent a request to join, there is a chance someone has already sent you a Facebook message.

    Remember to check your message folders in addition to the in-box.
    Filtered (Other): https://www.facebook.com/messages/filtered
    Message Requests: https://www.facebook.com/messages/requests

    Thanks for your interest in our social experiment!

  5. So nicely put! Love!
    Altruism and Gift Economy can change the world!

  6. A lovely story! I have benefited from the local (neighborhood) Buy Nothing network in Rochester, New York, and hope to find good homes for my surplus items.

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