Perhaps the Amish Can Teach Us a Thing or Two

I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Amish territory. We always regarded Amish territory as Lancaster County, although since my childhood the Amish turf has expanded. There are now quite a few Amish living in close proximity to my childhood home.

The Amish were always a novelty of sorts: buggies and horses; no cars, electricity, or phones; plain dress; bad haircuts; detachment from the broader society. It was never a life that appealed to me, yet I was aware that most kids who grew up Amish remained with the community throughout their lives, even after being given an opportunity to leave.

This morning, when reading a blog post about digital minimalism by Cal Newport (Study Hacks blog), I came across this statement about the Amish and their decision to reject much of the technology I take for granted:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

Such incredible intentionality, I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a community that consciously evaluates technology in such a way. The English (the Amish’s term for me and you) rarely if ever undertake such a self-examination. Instead, we automatically embrace new technology if we can afford it and if it brings us pleasure. Or at least if we assume it’s going to bring us pleasure (whether or not it actually does is a different question).

But are we better off for it? That’s another matter. And it’s a question we don’t wrestle with much if at all.

I do know that the Amish don’t seem to be worse off for not having embraced many of the technologies that are part of our lives — at least if the measure is happiness. And if the measure isn’t happiness, then what is it? What should it be?

I suppose the Amish would argue we (the English) tend to undervalue community and relationships. Has it occurred to us they may be right?

And if they’re right, how would we live our lives differently if we better aligned our decisions with what we truly value?

Personally, I think we tend to undervalue relationships and time. Consequently, we have a plethora of fractured families and communities, and we tend to lives our lives like there is an inexhaustible supply of time when, in reality, time is a very limited, precious resource that could be gone in a heartbeat (literally).

There are some things I think we overvalue, too. Money and stuff head the list. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of storage space Americans rent in which to keep their excess stuff. And by the amount of debt Americans carry so they can buy more stuff.

But my goal, Vera, isn’t to convince you that my list of under and over-valued things is better than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s merely to raise the questions, might the Amish be on to something? And might we be well served by extending their question (does it do more harm than good) beyond decisions about technology?

I think they are and it does.

Life constantly tempts us to compromise our values for something else.

Often, the something else is something someone wants us to embrace (and value) because they can make money off of our decision to buy it. Or pursue it. Or acquiesce to it.

Often, the something else is merely ego gratification and short-termism — the failure to learn from history and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may be the right thing to do. But it also might be something that undermines our values and detracts us from the things — and people — that truly matter. The things that bring happiness into our lives. Or a deep sense of purpose or contentment. Or simply peace and grace.

Does it do more harm that good?

It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves each and every day of our lives.