Monday, 27 August 2012

Lives less ordinary

This summer, a friend came over from the US. It was the first time that we’d met in the flesh and it turned out to be one of the year’s highlights. He’s from Pennsylvania and, all I know of this state is, that it is home to the Amish. Living across the pond, we only hear of these people whenever investigative reporters take a camera crew to film their daily activites.

Their way of life, customs and dress are so far removed from our daily experience that we seek to understand how such a community has resisted the powerful forces of social and scientific change. For almost 400 years, their lifestyle has remained largely unchanged.

During the 1600’s there was growing dissension in the Church of England that it was in moral decline.  These dissenters became the Puritans and, in a back to basics policy, they banned the wearing of colourful clothing, music and celebrations of all kinds. This was a bleak period in English history and, as you can imagine, Puritans were not too popular with the masses who enjoyed wine, women and dancing in the street!. Today we’d call them “poopers!”

After the Puritans failed to pass on their lacklustre lifestyle and were overthrown in England they decided to head to the New World. With renewed hope, shiploads migrated and settled to the frugal life as God had intended. The English-Swiss-German settlers, after formal introductions had been made, proceeded to inter-marry and raise a barn or three!!

The interesting thing is that they have managed to preserve their language even today, known as Pennsylvanian Dutch. They live by strict codes where the emphasis is on church and family. If you’re an Amish woman, you’ve got the short straw! Feminism is unheard of.  Women play a subservient role as homemakers – wives and mothers. There’s no electricity so household chores are hard labour. They ride in buggies and live off the land.

God's country
On the plus side, they are mostly economically independent people. They have achieved mastery over technology by shunning it completely. They only submit to God and, in many ways, appear as puppets of his will. Individualism, in this society, would be a threat.  I guess no one told them that God is a feminist and he is the sower of the seeds of innovation that man, with his free will, chooses to use for good or evil.

I like the idea of frugality, community and fidelity to God but extremist measures are not for me. 
The challenge of duality is to live in and out of this world. Religious exclusiveness in the midst of diversity is the pathway to discord. We all know that we need to leave behind our gadgets and seek more human connection. It’s amazing that in an age when we can phone, text, email, instant message and skype, many of us do not wish to keep in touch. The Amish see technology as disconnecting them from God and it's easy to understand why!

The good life
Who doesn’t dream of a home on the range? Who doesn’t hark back to an era when we walked rather than rode? Who doesn’t know the value of manual labour in keeping us mentally fit and physically active? Who doesn’t yearn to live the simple life and end their evenings in front of a log fire? Who doesn’t want to eat fresh, organic food every day? Who doesn’t want more peace of mind?

I was raised on TV shows such as : “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons”. Their attraction lay in their simplicity and authenticity as it was portrayed. It was spiritually powerful television and addictive for the hungry soul.  It was picture perfect but so unreal. Life’s just not like that! 

Life does not go backwards or “tarry with yesterday” as Kahlil Gibran, a famous Lebanese poet said. 
Our tomorrows march on. Time waits for no man.  To stand still is to stagnate. To go forward is to journey into potential. A closed mind is not what God intended for his people.

One pioneering spirit who made an epic journey into a new world was, the late Neil Armstrong. He was an explorer in the vein of Columbus, Polo and even the first Amish settlers.  He was a regular guy with a mind open to infinite possibilities. He had a vision and with NASA’s help it was fulfilled. He made a small footprint on the moon’s surface and a bigger one in all our minds.

Though he was feted the world over he was a humble figure, perhaps a puritan at heart. He shunned the limelight but he did not shun progress.  

Mr Armstrong has left a magnificent legacy and when future generations are taking their holidays in space, they’ll know who they have to thank for this endeavour.

The Amish and the Space Programme will endure. There’s much we have to understand about the paradoxes presented here. Progress is a double sided coin; it comes with a price. Western civilisation was established by the most uncivilized means – war, death and torture – but there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Uncommon Pennsylvanian
The Amish are an uncommon people who teach us about a way of life that is past. Neil Armstrong was an uncommon hero who provided us with a glimpse into the future.

There's a little bit of Amish in all of us when we relish the idea of getting away from the capitalism and consumerism that dominates our daily lives. There's something compelling about that kind of freedom, though we might miss electricity...just a little bit! There's something of a Neil Armstrong  in all of us too...if only we cared to nurture our adventurous spirits....we could also be at the cutting edge of great achievement.

This summer, I found a kindred spirit in an uncommon Pennsylvanian. - part world traveller and part home steader.His life is inspiring too…..but that story is for another time.



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