Keeping Your Sanity in Insane Times

Throughout history, crazy times have come and gone as politics - and almost always, only politics - have made it impossible for many otherwise normal people to live in society. There have been many such periods in human history, from barbarian invasions, to religious persecutions, to the Dark Ages, to the Inquisition, to the Holocaust, and even into our own time with the politics that is consuming American life today. It was not so long ago that liberals and conservatives were found in both the Democratic and Republican parties, pushing both parties toward the middle and making it easy for politicians to work across the aisle and build bipartisan solutions to political problems. Sadly, those days seem to be long gone with the polarization of politics under which we now live, a polarization that splits families, “unfriends” long relationships on Facebook and in real life, and has even reached the point that many people will not even date unless their potential partner passes a litmus test of political beliefs. This state of affairs is bemoaned by people on all sides, decried by pundits across the political spectrum, but played up to by the professional politicians who cater to categories of voters and pander to their “base,” as they solicit money from rich donors, corporations, and interest groups with promises to promote their agenda. This is clearly not the America our Founding Fathers intended, nor is it the America that American voters want to cultivate through their votes and support for particular candidates and parties.

Personally, I identify politically as a “faith-based, pro-life, progressive Agrarian.” As a Christian, I like to think my political choices are based on a higher understanding of ethics and morality that is shared by people of faith across the religious spectrum to include Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus,  and even ethical atheists/agnostics. As a person who is decidedly pro-life, I oppose abortion and the death penalty and support environmental causes, as well as social programs that aim to give every child born a good start and a solid shot at life, regardless of their race, socioeconomic class, or religion. As a progressive, I do believe government has a very positive role to play in building a more equal and just society and I do not fear its growth as an inherent evil. Finally, as an agrarian, I oppose GMOs and the farming methods that produce them, I support organic farming, and advocate for small-scale, sustainable farming that grows real food on the local level. I also support environmental policies at the national and global levels that promote good soil, clean air, clean water, and renewable energy. I do not fit neatly into any political party as currently constituted in the U.S.

On Election Day, 2016, I felt for the first time in my life how I suspect many African Americans have felt since America’s founding - no matter who gets elected, they will not represent me or my interests and that the outcome of the election really doesn’t matter because it will not end well for me. Amish have felt the same way for over a century. Whether Trump or Clinton, Democrats or Republicans, the election results were bound to disappoint. Two years later, nothing has changed.

While my “agenda” may be different from yours, I suspect you share the same problem I do in trying to identify yourself politically. Am I a Democrat? A Republican? A Bernie Sanders Democratic Socialist? Or simply an independent that cannot be squeezed into any category? Many Americans - I suspect the majority, in fact - had to make a painful choice in the presidential election; in effect, “holding one’s nose” when voting, making a painful choice of the “lesser of two evils,” with little or no enthusiasm for the chosen candidate. In my 60 plus years, I have never seen the American people confronted with such a choice as we had in the last presidential election.

So where does this leave us? What is to be done? What can each of us as individuals do to preserve our sanity in these insane times?

Rod Dreher, a noted conservative writer on religious themes, recently published a book entitled The Benedict Option. Dreher looks back to the time of St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries as a model of how modern man might face this conundrum of living sanely in an insane world. Benedict was born in 480, just four years after the beginning of what is today referred to as the Dark Ages, that period of roughly 500 years when the Roman Empire had collapsed in the West, there was no Holy Roman Emperor to maintain order, and society largely collapsed into constant warfare, strife, plagues, and invasions from outside powers. It was truly a “dark time” for Western civilization.

St. Benedict looked at his world and the suffering people in it and realized that the only way to save society was to leave it. Christians, he said, needed to form communities built around faith principles, follow their own rule of order, and save themselves. Jesus, he taught, came to the world to save sinners - not societies. The Christian’s first obligation was to save oneself and let society go, but that if enough of them did this, the cumulative effect would be to save society from itself.

Since the time of St. Benedict, various monastic orders sprung up across Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages. In America, other groups attempted a similar separation from society, especially the utopian communes of the 18th century. Besides the Shakers in various states and the Amana Colonies in Iowa, there were Amish and Mennonite communities, Hutterites, and the modern Bruderhof Communities, which are intentional communities often based in cities. In Russia, the Old Believers fled to Siberia and other rural areas and during the Communist period fled the Soviet Union to America where they continued their isolated life.

Dreher argues that we live in a similar time today and only a similar approach will save us and ultimately save our society. Personally, I find much truth in what he says but I think we can approach it a bit differently. Separation from society, and thus getting closer to God or whatever our conception of a higher power is, involves more than simply moving out to the country, getting off the grid, and not having a television. All that may well be part of it, but ultimately the challenge is much broader. Man, in a very real sense, is a trinity of body, mind, and spirit. As such, one must look at separating from society as a threefold challenge - separating physically, mentally, and spiritually from society, from the world, but most especially from the world’s values. How do we do that?

To answer this question, I look to several sources of experience and wisdom. Physical separation is perhaps the easiest one to achieve. We have a rich literature and centuries of experience to guide us starting with the Early Desert Fathers in fourth-century Egypt, to Henry David Thoreau, Scott and Helen Nearing’s writings, through Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry, as well as many other writers who have advocated for the simple life, anti-consumerism, off-grid living, and draft power farming. The pages of Small Farm Journal have been a guiding light in this respect for over forty years. In this mold we also have the Amish model, which is built around community and faith, but theirs is an approach that while inspiring to many is not one everyone can adapt due to its faith-centered approach. 

One factor that does stand out from all the literature is that physical separation requires that we leave the city and live in a rural area. This theme resonates through all the monastic writers, Amish thinkers, the back-to-nature movement, 19th and 20th century communes, and today’s homesteading movement. Even among monastic communities, very few of them seek an urban setting unless their monastic life is based on social and community service, as a small minority are. One notable exception is the Orthodox Jews of New York City who have built a fairly separate society in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where they have their own schools, houses of worship, language, businesses, etc., all while being surrounded by a non-Jewish world with which they interact on a daily basis. This “urban separation” has an historical basis, however, as Jews had pretty much quit farming by A.D. 200 and became an urban people with urban occupations throughout the world and were often not allowed to own land in Middle Ages Europe. In this respect, Jews are a notable exception to being “separate” in an urban setting. They are not alone in seeking separation in an urban setting, though, as several mainly Catholic monastic orders have also sought to find separation while living among others.

Incidentally, one reason the Orthodox Jewish community is able to maintain its separation in an urban setting is language, an advantage the Amish also share in their community. Both communities have a religious language, a community language, and a business language. For the Jews, it’s Hebrew, Yiddish, and English; for the Amish, it’s German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English.

To explore this issue more deeply in a 21st century context, I traveled to Amish Country in Ohio to meet with David Kline, a well-known Amish Bishop, writer, and magazine editor who has written extensively on organic farming, beekeeping, and the Amish way of life. Over the course of two hours, Mr. Kline spoke at length of the Benedict Option and the Amish experience of “being in the world, but not of the world.”  

Community, according to Kline, is vital to Amish life and it is certainly a point that Dreher comes back to often in pursuing the Benedict Option. I asked Mr. Kline if it is possible to be Amish alone, without community. “No,” he said, “we are like herding animals in that we need support from each other. If you light a candlestick, it does not make any noise but just shines its light out. But if you take it outside, the wind can blow it out so it needs protection, a globe to protect the light. That’s where we as a community, as brothers and sisters, we are the globe for each other that keeps that light from being snuffed out.”  Kline also recalled how he and his son were once plowing with teams of horses. “We stopped up on the hill to rest the teams, and we counted fifteen other teams plowing in the neighborhood. I knew that if we had some misfortune, all those teams would unhitch and come to our help. It’s not a controlling community at all, but a passive one that will always be there for you.”

Central to that sense of community is the life of the church, around which every Amish community is centered. “When waiting for church to start,” explained Kline,  “we stand in a circle just talking to whoever is next to you. You get to know that person and not just seek out your friends to talk to them. After church we have a common meal, all cold food, and it’s not over until 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon. If we drop the noon meal, we will see a difference in our church.” The early hermits in the Egyptian Desert practised this as well - even though they lived in isolation in scattered caves and huts, they still came together on weekends and shared a common meal after church before heading back out to their desert abodes.

I asked Mr. Kline if it is possible to be Amish in an urban setting, but he was very clear that it is not. The Amish, he said, live only on farms and in villages, but never in cities. Every Amish home has a garden and raises at least part of their food so as never to lose their connection to the land. According to Kline, “All Amish are still part of the agriculture community, such as making farm machinery, the horse economy, etc. If we lose our agricultural base, we lose a lot more than just agriculture. Even our seasonal Scriptures are in tune with agriculture. We are so rooted to the land and I see it very much as part of our spirituality.”

The attraction for the city is very strong so it must be avoided. Like the ancient Egyptian hermits, though, the Amish will do business in the city, buying and selling, but only on occasion and only for the minimum time needed and then leave. Much of the homesteading literature makes a similar point that while it is good to be outside the city, it is also good to be close enough to one that you can do business there.

So the consensus is that physical separation requires leaving the city for a rural area or a village, but in any case close enough to a city to do business as necessary as economic survival is critical to separation. But what about mental separation? How do we separate ourselves mentally from the constant stream of information and data that flows into our lives every minute of every day via Internet, mass media, email, social media, etc.? Again, the Amish experience has much to teach, but it is not easy.

The primary aspect of mental separation is controlling the flow of information that one receives. Do we really need to consume news throughout the day? Do we really need to visit a dozen websites and click on many Facebook posts to be “informed?” Is a smartphone with news alerts required to be an informed citizen? Do we need to read and stress over every Presidential Tweet, to argue with people on Facebook, to get ourselves in a lather over things we cannot influence or control? Or can we severely limit our news consumption without ceasing to be responsible, informed citizens? As a news junkie who consumes a minimum of a half-dozen news sources every day, who watches network news on several channels, listens to talk radio every chance I get, and follow the op-eds in newspapers almost religiously, this idea of “mental separation” is surely one of the most difficult issues to face. I am not sure I’m ready to give up the Internet, my iPad and iPhone, or tune out TV entirely, but I think a compromise is certainly in order. Again, the Amish have much to offer in their collective wisdom on this topic as they initially separated themselves from the rest of society because of the changing technology of the Industrial Revolution.

With their model in mind, a viable approach might be as follows:

  1. Subscribe to ONE reliable news magazine, a weekly, and use that as my only source of news (probably The Economist as it is highly reputable and objective). A local newspaper delivered in hard copy might also be appropriate, but no more than that.

  2. Subscribe only to periodicals that reinforce your chosen lifestyle and efforts to separate from society. A faith magazine, a professional magazine, and perhaps one or two lifestyle magazines are more than enough.

  3. Exchange my smartphone for a dumbphone that allows calls and texts only. As Mr. Kline describes it, “With smartphones, the evilness of the world has never been closer - it’s right at your fingertips!” The Amish, he said, “really struggle with cell phones because there are no pay phones anymore and people need them for jobs, construction work, etc.”

  4. If you must have email (a given for many who have to make a living and stay in touch with dispersed family members), check it only once a day at a designated time. After all, the mail only comes once a day, so why should email come more often? And totally disconnect from everything one day every week, whether it’s the Sabbath for Jews, Friday for Muslims, or Sunday for Christians.

  5. Get rid of the television once and for all.

  6. Have limited Internet at home, if at all. It should not be high capacity, streaming Internet that allows for streaming movies. Basically used only for email and maintaining a website or social media page for business. Better yet, go to the public library to use the Internet and not have it at home at all.

  7. No social media, unless it is for business and any such account should be used only for business. Even a personal account is easily flooded with political information these days so best to avoid that as well. It really all comes down to how much self-control one has and how easily tempted one is.

  8. Read real books, not ebooks; the latter require Internet and the offerings can be very tempting. Use the library whenever possible so as to avoid the temptation to accumulate books.

Another area of mental separation is in the area of economy. Here, the ample literature on simplicity offers much guidance and advice, but Amish practice is especially instructive. The Benedict Option certainly requires us not to practice consumerism, always seeking to have the “latest and greatest,” and accumulating for the sake of increasing one’s possessions. Just as St. Benedict wrote his “Rule,” so do the Amish have their guidelines. “With consumerism, you have to keep it on a leash,” said Mr. Kline. “That’s why we have these Ordnungs (rules). I hardly ever go into a big box store, but when I do it’s amazing how many aisles I don’t have to walk down because of this. We have a dress code for the men - one suit - so on Sunday morning, I do not have to make a decision. I have one suit, one shirt, one hat, one pair of shoes - it’s liberating! As far as simplicity, it really helps.” I remember hearing a Russian Orthodox monk in Israel once say the same thing; “One of the nice things about being is a monk is you never have to worry about what to wear!”

Farming is a critical part of the Amish approach to the economy. According to Kline, “Amish farmers always sold on the general economy. Getting into private enterprise and manufacturing brought wealth, whereas with farming you did not get wealthy. Agrarian Amish never got wealthy, but they had a good life. My father would always say, ‘Farming is such a good life. When you sell, you take what they pay you; when you buy, you pay what they ask you. You have no real bargaining power. It’s such a nice Christian life!’” Reflecting further on their choice to farm with horses and not tractors, Kline said, “We try to limit wealth. Farming with horses does that. Agriculture is very visible, everyone can see what you do. With manufacturing, much of it is invisible. It’s inside, the technology is invisible, people do not see what you do and it’s easy to get wealthy. With agriculture, everyone can see your mistakes.”

Related to simplicity is the concept of “enough.” In this, the Amish communities are very serious about not being a slave to wealth or letting the love of money be the root of evil in their lives. As one such example of how Amish economy functions, Kline related the following story about buying strawberries. “Some years ago, we had a bad strawberry year. We had a variety that blighted and we had no strawberries. I went over to a farm in Kidron one day, about seven miles away, and I stopped at three places that were Swartzentrubers (a very conservative branch of the Amish community) that had signs for ‘Strawberries for Sale.’ I ordered them for the next week and when I went to pick them up, they charged me $2.50 per quart when they could easily have charged me $4 and I would not have blinked. Another time, I stopped at a place for blackberries and it was on a Saturday and they had marked the price down to $2 because it was Saturday. I said I could not take them home that day because my wife was not ready to prepare them and that I would come back on Tuesday. One of the children said they will be $2.50 then. The mother, who was inside the house but listening through the screen window, said ‘No, they’ll be $2.’ That impressed me that she would not interrupt them except to lower the price. They are just very happy with a decent price. The love of money really is the root of all evil. We do not want either riches or poverty.”

Neither riches nor poverty - definitely a radical philosophy in today’s “Prosperity Gospel,” “free market,” “unbridled capitalism,” “greed is good” society.

This leaves only spiritual separation, undoubtedly the hardest of the three separations to do. Physical and mental separation are primarily external struggles, but spiritual separation is all about internal struggles. While it is possible to be spiritually separated from the world while living and working in the world, it is very difficult to do so. As spiritual seekers across many cultures around the world have long known, physical and mental separation are the first and most important steps to achieving spiritual separation. In this respect, faith traditions have much to offer in how to engage this spiritual struggle.

A classic concept to guide us in this effort is the “Seven Deadly Sins,” that were outlined about a century before St. Benedict’s birth by Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century monk. While primarily a Christian concept, variations of these Seven Deadly Sins are found in many faith traditions around the world. These are well worth considering here because they connote both external and internal struggles and managing them can lead to the spiritual separation that completes the triad. These seven sins are easily remembered using the acronym PALE GAS - Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice (greed), and Sloth. Opposite to these are the “Seven Holy Virtues”: Humility, Kindness, Chastity, Patience, Abstinence (self-control), Generosity, and Diligence, in that order. All of these qualities involve the internal struggle to control oneself, to manage one’s attitudes, and there are several approaches to doing so. 

From a purely secular perspective, such practices as anger management, diet, meditation, volunteerism and giving to charity, keeping busy and occupied in productive activities, being faithful to a spouse or partner, and being humble in not bragging to others are all steps in the right direction. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”) is another and gives a philosophical base for action that is not tied to any faith tradition. Bookstores bulge with self-help books addressing all of these challenges to the spiritual life, but for people of faith, there are other tools available. 

Faith communities often have “rules” for living that govern one’s personal conduct. The Rule of St. Benedict is an obvious example, but also the Amish “Ordnungs” and the liturgical churches’ prayer rules, fasting guidelines, and other such spiritual directions. The idea here is that the individual subjugates one’s own will in obedience to another, which induces humility, thus overcoming the sin of pride. In the Orthodox Jewish communities, the role of the “Rebbe” in guiding an individual’s thoughts and decisions is very powerful, and a similar role exists in Eastern Orthodoxy for spiritual fathers (usually monks), gurus in Hinduism, and other spiritual figures found in faith traditions around the world. Regardless of one’s faith tradition - or lack of faith tradition - there are resources available to help one develop the detachment from worldly values that is critical to spiritual separation. Across the board, though, prayer and meditation are central to this struggle and should hold the primary place in any seeker’s quest to achieve spiritual separation, but they  usually come AFTER physical and mental separation.

The “Benedict Option,” then, is a strategy open to everyone as a means for keeping one’s sanity during insane times. What Americans are experiencing today is just the latest phase of civilization in turmoil and people have confronted this challenge many times, around the world, through the centuries. If you, like me, find the trends in our society today to be perplexing, at minimum, or maddening at worst, withdrawing from society and “carrying on” may well be the best strategy we have. In the book of Jeremiah, God speaks to the children of Israel who have been forced into Babylonian exile: This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriages so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there. Do not decrease.”

In other words, separate yourself physically - go into voluntary exile.

Separate yourself mentally - shun the values of the world and live a life of simplicity.

Separate yourself spiritually - be the change you want to see and raise up children who will share those values.

And keep calm and carry on, as the saying goes. Plant your gardens, eat your own food even if it’s only a few tomatoes grown in a tiny garden, care for the land you have, raise your children, and save yourself. If enough of us do this, as they did in the time of St. Benedict, society will ultimately change and perhaps our children or grandchildren will live in the society we envision. This may well be the best way to keep our sanity in these insane times.

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