Owning and Being Owned

Simplicity, part 1

The Amish Ordnung – their set of rules – prohibits or suing in a court of law or running for political office, though it generally allows voting. Public electricity is prohibited, though most groups generate their own from diesel generators or batteries – or, increasingly, solar panels -- for limited purposes that include home lighting and running the motorized washing machine, which almost all Amish allow.

Automobiles and radio and TV are prohibited, and the Ordnung requires a particular style of clothing, hairstyle, and carriage design. Most Amish allow chainsaws, pneumatic tools, and running water for the bathtub and inside flush toilets – though 30 percent of the Amish population live in church districts that forbid these. Half of the Amish live under an Ordnung that prohibits pickup hay-balers and half live under one that allows them. Each church district, comprising 20-40 families, has authority to modify its own Ordnung as it sees fit. Any church district that grows to more than 40 families splits into two; thus, as the Amish population has grown -- doubling approximately every 20 years since 1901, and exceeding 330,000 in 2018 -- so has the number of Ordnung. Making a change, though, requires unanimity of the membership, so, by design, change is slow.

In 1900, as the telephone was spreading across America, many Amish also installed phones in their homes. Within 10 years – by about 1910 – the Ordnung of most Amish church districts had banned telephones from their homes. Home telephones were determined to be too much convenience, to promote more connection to the outside world than was healthy, and, within the community, to promote gossip. Home telephones, as parents of teenagers have been noticing since long before there were cell phones, reduces shared family time, which the Amish are very intentional about preserving. Also, Amish maintain their Ordnung through the practice of church leaders paying a visit to urge a wayward church member to “put away” their jet ski, or whatever forbidden technology has been noticed. Home telephones would weaken the power of these visits. The Amish noticed that, even if church leaders always came by in person for such a visit, an in-person visit in a context where phoning each other is common takes on a different meaning from an in-person visit in a context where such visits are the only ways, other than church, that neighbors are in touch with each other.

I’m impressed by how carefully Amish communities think through these issues. We Englishers – the Amish term for nonAmish of any ethnicity – will often mention “unintended consequences” of some action or technology. The Amish show us that just because consequences may not have been intended doesn’t mean they were unforeseeable, if we had carefully and collectively slowed down to think through the implications.

For instance, on the telephone issue, the Amish saw that they needed telephones to conduct business. They also saw pro-family aspects of telephones, such as contact with relatives in other settlements. So Amish places of businesses often have a phone – just not in their home. And they might have a cell phone, but keep it in the barn. Or a church district will construct a phone shanty at the end of a lane where there may be several land-line telephones, each shared by several families. Every day or two somebody from the family strolls out to the phone shanty to check messages and return phone calls. What a contrast that is to the way I live! Even my most deliberated purchases are impulsive by Amish standards.

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Our theme of the month for January is simplicity. My relationship with simplicity is complicated. Facebook gives you eleven options for indicating your relationship status: you can be single, in a relationship, engaged, married, separated, divorced, widowed, in a civil union, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, or it’s complicated. “It’s complicated” is a semi-official category of relationship. That's the relationship I have with simplicity.

Once upon a time, simplicity and I were “in a relationship.” I was a fan of Duane Elgin’s 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple Inwardly Rich. Elgin described a way of life that
“embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential — both psychological and spiritual — in community with others.”
From Elgin I learned that one ought to be be careful about what one buys and owns. Everything you own also owns you.

Remember how when you were a kid you wanted a pony? Your parents probably said, “That’s a big responsibility.” But you didn’t care. (If you had someone in your life who you believed had the means to produce a pony, and were caring enough to give you guidance about responsibility, then you also knew you had someone who could bail you out if you turned out not to always be 100% up to the responsibilities.) But as you got older, and started to have and take more responsibility, you developed interests that you weren’t willing to give up to spend hours a day feeding, and grooming, and exercising a horse and cleaning and maintaining its stable. You realized all the things you’d be giving up – that the horse owns you as much as you own the horse. OR, maybe you grew up and DID get a horse, because you loved them so much you were happy to be owned the caretaking demands.

But what’s true for horse ownership also applies to everything we buy and own. Do I own my cell phone or does it own me? Well, both. For most of us, life is a matter of
  • owning and being owned by a cell phone;
  • owning and being owned by a car;
  • owning and being owned by a house;
  • owning and being owned by a set of living room furniture;
  • owning and being owned by all the equipment in your kitchen;
  • owning and being owned by each major and minor appliance in your house.
Do you want a life of being owned by all that? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s a question to investigate and explore – something to be intentional about instead of finding ourselves unwittingly arriving, step by step, at a life you wouldn’t have chosen all at once.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Simplicity"
See next part 2: Complexity is Good. So is Simplicity.
Part 3: Simplicity and Belonging

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