I just read a hard copy of the following article in the March 2012 edition of Share International and found it extremely inspiring. With a world addicted to consumerism it is a breath of fresh air to read of the courageous lifestyle of Heidemarie Schwermer. It reminds me somewhat of another hugely inspiring woman, Peace Pilgrim, from an earlier time (1950s, 60s and 70s). The following article is found at http://share-international.org/magazine/old_issues/2012/2012-03.htm#softt

Interview with Heidemarie Schwermer

by Andrea Bistrich
An excerpt

Heidemarie Schwermer worked as a psychotherapist and teacher for 20 years before deciding, in 1996, to attempt an experiment to live without money. What was initially to last one year has, in the meantime, become a way of life for the 70-year-old. She has written three books on living without money, holds lectures and has been a guest on numerous talk-shows. Her first book, The Star Money Experiment, translated into many languages, was awarded the Tiziano Terzani Peace Prize in 2008, and in 2010 the Italian/Norwegian documentary film about her life enjoyed its premier in Oslo. With her moneyless way of living she wants to give a positive impulse towards a more just and equal society.
Andrea Bistrich interviewed Heidemarie Schwermer in Munich for Share International.

Share International. You have been living without money for 16 years now. Why did you voluntarily give up money?

Heidemarie Schwermer. I am often asked if I have ever suffered a trauma in view of my having chosen such an extreme way of life. My trauma is the state of the world: daily, hundreds of thousands of people starve – yet concurrently there exists an abundance of food. Food is thrown into the oceans or discarded in waste disposal sites. Billionaires build pools in their private jets or buy luxury yachts, no longer knowing what to do with their money. The situation is so absurd that I decided to play along no longer and to seek new living forms.

I have been preoccupied with the subject of poverty all my life. I was born in 1942, during the war. When I was a child my family was forced to flee from East Prussia, now Lithuania, to Schleswig-Holstein, in the north of Germany. We suddenly became refugees – people would call us “you dirty lot”. Financially my parents recovered quite rapidly: my mother was a piano teacher and taught some of the farmers’ daughters in the region, and my father quickly found a job in the new city. Yet this experience left its mark on me. I never really understood why a person could suddenly become worthless just because she had no possessions. I believe that we are all born with a theme that we are to work on during the course of our lifetime. My theme is poverty – in a world of abundance.

SI: What eventually led to the decision to live without money? Was there a particular reason?

HS: I moved to Dortmund for professional reasons. The city is extremely poor. In some areas there is a beggar on each corner. At the time I would often ask myself how we could simply look on while young men were on the streets drinking beer simply because no one was willing to give them a job. They were superfluous to the system. Yet how can a person be superfluous? What kind of system can allow this to happen? This cannot be! I once heard a talk on the radio by a priest who was talking about a village in Canada. When the factory where most of the inhabitants worked became bankrupt and closed, all the people were suddenly without work and earnings. The people said, “We are all capable. We will get together and help each other.” From this something new emerged. The priest commented that it would be nice if something similar happened in Germany. These words struck directly in my heart. That was also my objective; it was precisely what I wanted to do in Germany. I then decided to work towards helping people to open themselves towards others, to support each other and to look for new values and forms of living.

SI: In 1994 you initiated one of the first ‘exchange circles’ in Germany.

HS: Yes, the Give and Take Centre in Dortmund. Anyone can participate in ‘give and take’ – even if one has no money. In the interim there are many such centres where people can exchange services without money playing a role: a haircut in exchange for a car repair, babysitting for window cleaning, counselling or office work for baking, and much more. From the exchange circle I realised that I continually needed less money for my daily needs. After a while this was no longer enough for me: I wanted to venture an experiment and live completely without money.

SI: How is this achievable in daily life? Daily you must eat and sometimes need new clothes. You need somewhere to live, or at least a roof over your head.

HS: I naturally asked myself in the beginning how I could achieve it. I had an apartment and had to pay rent and insurance. Then some people that I knew from the exchange circle asked me to look after their house while they were on holiday. In this way I suddenly had ten or more apartments where I could live temporarily.
I eventually took the step to give up my possessions and all my securities: I put my furniture, my crockery, and other possessions in the hallway and gave them away. I cancelled my insurance policies. My new life could then begin and I moved to the first apartment which I was to look after for three months….

SI: Where did you get your food from?

HS: In the first house that I looked after there were some food supplies but they only lasted a week. I had to come up with something if I was not going to starve. There was an organic grocery store in the vicinity and so I asked if they had left-overs or things which they were unable to sell. Members of our exchange group sometimes cooked together and we were given food which we did not have to pay for – but we always did something in return: cleaning, tidying, cleaning the courtyard, computer work, any chores that needed doing. The people from the organic grocery store were immediately open to this idea. They had actually wanted something like this for quite a while yet had not found anyone willing to collect the food-stuffs. Initially we collected the food once a week and then later daily. Today, after 15 years, the agreement with the organic grocery store still stands.

It is similar in other locations. For example, I was once looking after a house in Turin, Italy, in which there was nothing to eat. There was a daily market and I went there two to three times a week shortly before closing, at midday, and collected all food that had fallen on the ground. This left a strong impression. In the meantime, there is a small group of locals in Turin who go to this market once a month to collect the food that has been discarded so as to prepare a collective meal….

SI: What exactly do you mean by ‘give and take’?

HS: ‘Give and take’ functions without money and invoicing. It is not a calculated exchange yet a balanced flow, an attitude of trust. We can live in abundance, there is enough for everyone. Naturally this must also be put into practice for in the past centuries we have lived by the principle of “that which costs nothing, is worthless”. ‘Give and take’ shops can be set up anywhere: in cafés, shops in public, or private rooms. People can offer or place things they no longer need that come from this excess in a box or cupboard in a corner of the shop and others can take out what they need….

SI: In this context you have spoken of a paradigm change that is now due.

HS: Yes, we need a new point of view – individually, within society and also worldwide. Today when we want to make ourselves happy we go shopping. We buy something or go for a meal. We consume and allow ourselves to be distracted from the essential. My idea of ‘give and take’ is, on the contrary, based on more quality of life, joy and togetherness and activity towards each other as opposed to consumption and competition. Today we define ourselves especially through our performance and achievements, we must always function – and receive money for it. Obtaining money consumes all our energy. In my model of life without money, I have personally experienced how my focus has gradually shifted away from material values towards values like attention, creativity, liveliness, simplicity and trust within the flow of life.

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