More Than Money
Issue #38

Money and Happiness

Table of Contents

“What Is of Value? Lessons from the Amish”

Thoughts from Randy Testa

As told to Pamela Gerloff

Copyright © 2004 by More Than Money. All rights reserved. For permission to use or reprint articles, please contact More Than Money at 617-864-8200 or .

Randy Testa, Ed.D., is a teacher and editor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of two books on the Amish community, After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish and In the Valley of the Shadow: An Elegy to Lancaster County. He has co-edited, with Robert Coles, two literary anthologies, Growing Up Poor , and A Life in Medicine.

For me, living a happy life is mainly about living a life of value. When I was a doctoral student trying to decide on my thesis topic, an event happened that greatly affected me. I had gone home to visit my parents, who were living just outside of Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. I was out for a run and came across an enormously long line of traffic on Route 23, which cuts through the park before continuing on to the turnpike. At the front of the line was a Conestoga covered wagon with an Amish family riding in it. There was a father, a mother, two daughters, and a collie, all pulled by two Percheron horses that were frothing at the mouth; it was 93 degrees that day.

I don't know why, but something welled up in me and I felt such sympathy for these people. I was so embarrassed by my own world, in a way I still can't explain to myself, that I ran up to help them find a place where they could pull off the road and water their horses in the park. They got water for their horses, we talked for a bit, the park service personnel gave their horses some oats, and I went on my way. (I heard on the news that night that the family had made it to the other side of Philadelphia with the help of a police escort.)

When I left the park, I went up along Route 23 and sat under a tree and just wept. I thought, "I want to write about that." So I arranged to spend the summer of 1988 in an Amish community. When I left my Amish friends at the end of the summer with my heart on my sleeve, I asked my host family if I could come back.

I've been going back monthly since.

These trips back and forth over the years form the centerpiece to my way of seeing the world, which is hard for me to characterize. My Amish friend-whom I will call Levi here-and I read Anna Karenina together a few years ago. Levi devoured the book-especially the scenes in which Levin, a character based on Tolstoy himself, is working on his estate in the country. In one scene, Levin invites one of his city friends to his estate. To Levin's dismay, his friend is completely uninterested in the working of the farm; he just sits around all weekend as if he's at a spa, admiring "the countryside." Since then, Levi and I have had a long-standing joke: When we are in the thick of hard, important farm work, like milking the cows or baling hay and loading it into the barn, I'll ask,

After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish
By Randy-Michael Testa
(University Press of New England, 1992)
While visiting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Randy Testa had a chance encounter with an Amish family. In 1988 he returned to live among them, gathering field observations for his doctoral dissertation about the Amish as a moral community. In this book, Testa describes the conflicts that existed in Lancaster County between the opposing forces of land stewardship and land development, and between the moral values of the Amish and the material values of the outside world. The struggle of the Amish to keep their way of life intact, resisting the ways and values of the modern world, offers insights into the values and driving forces of larger American society.

"Am I being like Levin's city friend?"

Levi and his family help keep me honest, and mindful of what is of value to them-and, on most days, to me, too. From Levin's wife I learned to drive a team of mules. I've learned that there is a power to working together, really working shoulder to shoulder on a family farm, that makes me understand why so many of Jesus' parables-which are so important to the Amish-had to do with planting and harvesting.

The tension between going to the Amish community and coming back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live, creates a kind of paradox. It leads me to ask myself, "What is of value?"

The writer Wendell Berry reminds us that the word economy in fact comes from the Greek word for household . The Amish community is, in some sense, a large extended family; it's one big household. Life in an Amish household has to do with faith; being Amish is not a "lifestyle." In my view, a lifestyle consists of a set of marketed diversions, like styling gel or a food processor. For the Amish, faith is not a diversion; it's a totally consuming preoccupation. The question what is of value ? becomes, for them and for their economy, not a monetary question, but a spiritual question. An Amish bishop once said, "We don't prepare our children for the future, we prepare our children for eternity." That's a very different perspective than we who live in the "worldly" world (as the Amish call it) are used to, despite what we might have seen on television via Amish in the City .

Those are the kinds of things I find myself thinking about here in my life in Cambridge. These reflections have led to certain choices, which are my small attempt to resolve the paradox of these two very different ways of life. I don't own a car. I take public transportation whenever I can. I do things that are "less convenient" whenever possible- because, for the Amish, there is no such thing as convenience and, from them, I've learned the value of that. They're smart, because they know that convenience is generally going to come at a cost to some member of the community. An Amish family that puts together a monthly newspaper might have everyone in the family working on it-from a two year-old to a grandfather who is deaf as a post. Involving everyone in the activity may not be the most convenient or efficient way to put out a newspaper, but everybody's involved nonetheless. And they produce a darn good little newspaper! Gandhi said the means is the end in the making. That's really true for the Amish. What they do and how they do it is rooted in the question is it important?

In our world, we think in terms of the ends justifying the means. Maybe we made quota at work-but we fired 500 people. Certainly the Amish are not perfect. They are human beings before they are Amish. But, in general, there is more of a connection between thought, word, and deed among the Amish than in the rest of American society. For the Amish, the way you eat is the same as the way you farm, and the way you pray, and the way you behave with your neighbors.

That's what I find myself examining: the disconnections between thought, word, and deed-in my own life and in my society. Doing things that deliberately inconvenience me helps me make that examination, because it slows me down. To think good thoughts, you have to move slowly-or at least slower than you usually do. There's a wonderful little children's book called Henry Hikes to Fitchburg [by D. B. Johnson, Houghton Mifflin, 2000]. It's a story inspired by a passage from the writings of Henry David Thoreau. In the book, two friends decide to see which of them can get from Concord to Fitchburg, Massachusetts the fastest. Henry walks the 30 miles to Fitchburg; his friend works to save up money to take the train. Henry has all kinds of pleasant experiences on his walk: climbing trees, swimming in a pond, having adventures. When he arrives in Fitchburg by foot, his friend is already there, "smiling in the moonlight."

"The train was faster," his friend says. Henry takes a small pail from his backpack, smiles, and says, "I know. I stopped for blackberries."

The story is about value and the fact that gains and losses are always relative to one another.

I don't have any answers-I have to live with the tension of struggling to be in the world but not of the world. The answer is not for all of us to become

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology
By Eric Brende
(HarperCollins, 2004)
Are we better off than we were without our modern technology? In what ways, and in what ways not? Why, for example, hasn't all our technology given us more time to do what we enjoy? To answer such questions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Eric Brende and his wife went to live for a year and a half in a community he calls the "Minimites" in order to preserve their privacy. Among the Minimites, use of technology is a conscious choice. Physical exercise, social contacts, and mental challenges are integrated into daily life. Brende offers the non-Minimites among us possibilities for freeing ourselves from rampant technology so we can reduce stress, improve health, and expand happiness.

Amish. But with that said, one of the things I love about Eric Brende's book Better Off is that he examines this question of value. I love the example he gives of his wife choosing to use a washing machine with a hand crank because it allows her to get an aerobic workout while doing the laundry. She is making choices about what is of value.

People in our modern world do struggle in small daily ways to maintain what they value. One morning last fall, when the bus I ride every day to work turned a corner, we saw that a boy had gotten hit by a car. The little boy was lying there screaming in a way I had never heard a child scream in my life. The bus couldn't go any farther because the street was blocked off by the police. So everybody got off the bus and we all walked together to Harvard Square. We were overwhelmed by what we had seen. We chose to walk together, and not a word was said. Those kinds of moments-when people come together-you have to mark in your own life, and notice them, because they point to something bigger. Those moments ask us to remember that we are connected to one another. They ask us to remember what is of value..


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