High Resolution: The Focused Life
By Audrey Stallsmith
As my pastor drives for the Amish and another couple in our congregation lives next door to a large family of "Pennsylvania Dutch," I frequently hear the downside of the Amish way of life. The restrictions imposed don't always make sense to us "Yankees." And Amish children do frequently have genetic problems due to their parents being related.
But I recently read Amish Peace by Suzanne Woods Fisher. And, although I'm not inclined to idealize the "plain people," I did derive a few New Year's resolutions from what she had to say about them.
Fisher points out that many of the rules we consider excessive are imposed, not so much because the Amish view modern technology as morally wrong in itself, but because that technology might pull them away from things that are more important. Namely, their relationship to God and their family life. And anything which does that, we must admit, becomes wrong for us as well.
Fisher writes, for example, that the Amish tend "to only live with things that they really use. And to treasure them." In the meantime, most of the rest of us are drowning in a sea of junk, so much so that we frequently have to rent more space for it! I must confess that I have so many extra books and clothes that my shelves and closets can't contain them, and they frequently spill over into piles on the floor.
So one good New Year's resolution would be for me to get rid of the things that I'm not really using. I can always donate all those extras to a charity or give them away on Freecycle. Somebody else may treasure what I don't. I employ the term "using" in the broadest sense. Even pictures and knickknacks that give me joy are being used, while the ones that don't are simply gathering dust.
So the goal is not to rid ourselves of all possessions, just the excess that weighs us down. "Certain minds," G. K. Chesterton comments in Outline of Sanity, "have always perceived that life would be simplified without possessions, as it would be simplified without passions. But so to simplify the whole of human life would be rather to nullify it." Instead, we need to set limits on those possessions as we do on our passions.
Fisher also points out that, before our modern "green" movement, the Amish already had an inclination to "be resourceful, wasting nothing, living in harmony with nature, and recycling virtually everything." In What's Wrong with the World, Chesterton approves of such thriftiness, writing that "thrift is poetic because it is creative. . .it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference, that is, it is a confession of failure."
"Economy," he insists in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, "is essentially imaginative, because it is a realization of the value of everything. . .the real objection to waste is that all waste is a kind of murder. . ." So another good resolution would be for me to take note of what I'm wasting--and simply stop doing it!
I recently began to feel guilty about a drip in our bathtub's faucet that was, I suspected, squandering too much of one of the world's most precious resources--water. After putting a bucket under that faucet, I discovered that the drip must have been sending gallons down the drain every day. So recently I've been collecting all that good H2O to water my plants, for the weekly refreshing of the fish tank, etc. (Granted, it might be easier to fix the drip, but I fear that is beyond my present capabilities!)
I should also slow down enough to notice all the good things I don't have to purchase. Chesterton says that the newer and truer romance "will celebrate the cheapness of ecstasy. . .The stars and the dreams and myself are cheaper than chalk: for I bought them for nothing."
Because the Amish live so close to nature, they often take more note of it than the rest of us do. I once wrote an article about a local Dutch man who kept up a bluebird trail and had actually taught the birds to eat out of his hand. He had even made up his own design for bluebird houses to optimize his charges' health and safety. This resourcefulness is common among the Amish.
How much modern technology they are allowed frequently depends on the strictness, or lack thereof, of their local bishops. So, although they don't use electricity in the same way as we Yankees, some of them do make use of solar panels or generators--for powering milking machines and etc. And many have gas lights that are as bright as our electric ones. In other words, they find ways of getting around their limitations! And, like most farmers, they have to know a little bit about everything to survive.
The lesson in this being that I probably could find out how to repair that faucet if I really wanted to! We all rely far too much on specialists these days. We would probably be much happier if we learned to do more things for ourselves.
Before buying into any new technology, the Amish also "try to see beyond the immediate benefits of change to the effects it could have down the road. . . They make decisions with higher purposes in mind." This is probably why they eschew TV and the Internet, two of us Yankees' biggest time wasters!
Both, of course, also have their benefits. I receive the majority of the seeds for my gardens from trades I make over the Internet. Not to mention that the web is--these days--my most valuable source for information on all sorts of subjects. But I do waste a lot of time there, as I do in front of the TV.
I work nights as a home health aide, and my employer likes to have the "tube" on all evening. We all need some relaxation, of course. And that is what TV or a novel often affords to people who have been working all day. But even though, as a mystery writer I gravitate towards crime shows, I have recently become bored with them. And I haven't found much to like about most of the current sit-coms or "reality" shows. So, although I have always read during commercials, these days I frequently find myself continuing to read during the actual programs as well.
Thus, another resolution I could make is to only view the shows I am truly enthusiastic about. Preferably those that are mentally stimulating, as Jeopardy and many of the PBS offerings are. And not to watch TV simply because it's there! There are more worthwhile things I could be doing with the time. I should ask myself, as Fisher suggests, "Are the reasons I watch TV and surf the web helping me [or hurting me]?"
In a sense, TV endangers our souls by making us observers of fictional people's lives rather than active participators in our own. And the constant noise keeps us from thinking about things that are really important. It also tends to prevent us from having any serious talks with other family members--or with God.
So we need to start paying more attention to real people than fictional ones. One of the chief recreations of the Amish is "visiting," an activity that an introvert like me would not find very relaxing! But all that face-to-face time does, I suspect, allow them to know each other far better than we Yankees do.
I suspect the Amish don't need as much relaxation as we do either, because they are not in as much of a hurry to begin with. They "value thoroughness over haste, completion over speed." In other words, they take the time to do a good job. And, the more junk we eliminate from our lives, the more time we will have to do the same.
The Amish also try to limit the size of their farms or businesses, so that the press of work doesn't interfere with their family life. I suspect Chesterton would have liked their priorities, though probably disapproving of their drab dress. He too thought that businesses were best kept small, and that family should take precedence over work. The Amish are also willing to share their knowledge with others, and you will often find a Dutch businessman training the person who will become his competition. That would probably have reminded Chesterton of the medieval guilds that he so admired.
The Amish are supposed to maintain an attitude called Gelassenheit that "stresses humility over pride and esteems others above self." I imagine that some of them have as difficult a time with that as we do, but it's still an ideal towards which all of us should strive. And the Amish do take care of each other. They look after their elderly and handicapped, help each other build barns when necessary, and contribute money for the care of those who need hospitalization.
Because they give so readily, they "are comfortable about making [their own] needs known" as well. I'm afraid that many of the rest of us are too independent to ask for help when we require it. Then we stew about how we always have to do everything ourselves. Perhaps others are just afraid to offend our pride by offering assistance! Christians, as Paul frequently points out, are supposed to help each other--and not be hoarding either money or resentments.
When a fellow believer offends me, I can tell myself that he or she is "teaching me humility." Thus, the person becomes a blessing to me, whether or not that was the actual intent! Forgiveness is, after all, a requirement for the Amish, and should be for the rest of us as well. It will also spare us a lot of needless "inflammation" that is bad for both our physical and spiritual health.
Since most of these resolutions have been on the negative side, as in things not to do, I'll conclude with one of my poems that stresses the positive:
Live like the reprieved criminal
Whose pardon gallops up
Just before the noose tightens.
With the awe of the undeserving,
Get drunk on light and liberty,
Spend love with tipsy enthusiasm,
Wager all on an incredible God,
Unpack our mouldering finery,
Put feet up on our antiques,
Air out our stuffy, inbred souls,
Leap into the unknown with open eyes
Heirs of a universe where grace
Only comes free, our lives
Are much too valuable to save.