Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Community over Convenience: Why the Amish have got it goin' on

This weekend, during commercial breaks in our Adult Conversation (i.e. passionate, adoring chatter between two lovers--about their children), Rachelle and I talked about the Amish. (This is sounding like a really steamy couple's get-away weekend, I know.) But the Amish are like my heroes. If I got into the whole reincarnation thing, my goal would be to graduate and come back next life as an Amish person.

They are all about doing things the hardest way possible, which yields this paradoxical simplicity. They are the antithesis of what Staples is hoping to sell us. This office supply
store's ad campaign has captured the fantasy of the 21st-century Westerner: an "Easy" button, the postmodern magic wand that simplifies life's complicated tasks. They actually sell them. I have been buying easy buttons all my life: cell phones, computers, cars, PDAs, books, magazines and the rest of the pile of tools and toys that now isolate us from each other. I love all this stuff. I love "easy." I love harnessing my time and getting organized and being a geek.

In the gym, we are wired to personal audio devices leaving us incomunicato, so plugged in that we're utterly disconnected. My affluence affords me the luxury of driving wherever I want on my own schedule, without needing to rub elbows with other passengers or alter my hours to those of public transport. I live in a single-family home inhabited by my nuclear family. I have My Computer, My Music, My Movies, My Documents, MySpace--all so convenient, so confining.

I have been buying "Easy" buttons for my family, and loving them too. The minivan--complete with wireless headphones for kids to hear their movie while we do not--delivers both kids and parents from the inconvenience of sharing sound and space. Today I had the luxury of cleaning up from dinner while two daughters watched a video and the other listened to music on the computer with headphones. We buy Happy Meals, named for how parents feel when each kid has her own setup: toy, drink, entrée, side. Hold the squabbling over who got more fries.

But for the Amish, the perennial absence of an "Easy" button seems to give them something that I would love even more--each other. A dozen years ago I showed a documentary about Amish culture to a religion class I was teaching, and as we discussed it, this lanky, long-haired kid named Oliver--one of my brightest students--summed up Amish values in a phrase I have never forgotten: "community over convenience." And every so often, when the high-tech clutter of my life leaves me feeling lonely in a crowd, I know that this is what I want more than almost anything else.

The vision comes back: a trio of bearded Plain People plowing a field behind a horse--together. No Easy button there. But oh, how I envy them sometimes.

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