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The Amish and the Myth of the Simple Life

"Living simple" can be a lot harder than it sounds.

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The neighborhood is used to the Gallagher’s neo-Amish vibe. Nonetheless, when Tim and the youngest Gallagher rolled around the block in a rickshaw, it got my attention. Down the block I moseyed, where I learned the Gallaghers have committed to getting their kids to and from school a mile-and-a-half away without using the family minivan. Since not all of the kids are old enough to ride bikes, Tim did what any high-tech, suburban plain person a mere fifty miles from Berkeley would do: he scoured Craigslist for a rickshaw.

The rickshaw in question is a 1950s model manufactured in Britain for the Indian bicycle taxi trade and imported to Berkeley for display in an antique shop before it was purchased for private use. As far as I could tell, it doesn’t come with an “easy button.” Even after spending buckets of elbow grease cleaning it up, repairing the chain, and replacing sundry potentially eye-gouging bolts, the Gallaghers’ one-speed rickshaw with bicycle escort will turn a quick drive to school into a forty-five minute roundtrip commute. All for love of the earth? Not entirely. Eileen Gallagher, a pediatrician, is quick to point out the fitness benefits of the daily ride to school, but that’s hardly the whole of it. “You know, they’ll be talking to each other the whole way,” she says.

“Efficiency isn’t everything. The kids and Tim will have that time together every day. They’ll see their friends and neighbors on the way. They’ll say, ‘hi.’ They’ll check in. Those interactions, even if they’re not about anything really important, are everything.”

Sweet, I thought, but, cripes, don’t you see each other every other blessed minute of the day? Clearly, the demands of simplicity go much further than winnowing down of our stuff or hopping off the grid for the weekend. We apparently actually have to deal with each other. A lot. I don’t know how that plays into the Gallaghers’ faith life, but I do know that kind of conversation and relationship is, ironically, often not the stuff of mainline religious practice.

The Complexity of Simple Connections

Mainline religious life for most Western Christians, Jews, and Buddhists is at best a once-a-week affair. The norm is much less than that, with more than sixty percent of Americans with an identified religious affiliation attending services less than once a month, according to recent Pew data. More than a quarter opts out of face-to-face engagement pretty much entirely. So, it stands to reason that a cultural milieu defined by a 24/7 religiosity and interpersonal engagement would be as uncomfortable for many of us in terms of actual practice as it is captivating as an exotic spiritual diversion. Hence our alternating fascination with and disdain for the religious practices of observant Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and other groups for which religious commitment grounds basic aspects of life.

I’ve begun to think that this is part of what makes so many people so nervous about the relationship between new digital media and religion. The “always on” quality of digital life can have a kind of Amish or monastic vibe about it for the religiously inclined, what with those Virtual Abbey monks constantly seeding our Facebook and Twitter pages with calls to prayer. Add to that digital micro-news from people from church popping up outside of a sterile passing of the peace and a quick howdy-do at coffee hour. Being socially and spiritually present to one another, even 140 characters at a time, is a demand to which many are not accustomed.

We imagine the Amish (and maybe the Gallaghers) living outside this hive of connectedness, but the reality is that their lives demand a level of interpersonal connection that is not entirely unlike that maintained by our teenagers as they text and tweet and post to their extended communities of friends and “friends.” Thus we hold out groups like the Amish as representing a lost ideal of American communitarian culture while often ignoring the opportunities for and impact of a much wider connection to others that is available on a global basis today.

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