This is part three of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.
The farmer and author Wendell Berry relates the story of an Amish farmer who was asked, “what does community mean to you?” He said, “when my son and I rest our horses from plowing in the spring, we usually stop them at the highest point of our farm. From that standpoint we can see thirteen other teams at work. And I know that if I get sick or debilitated or die, those thirteen teams will be at work on my farm.”
This is the realisation that we need to make: That we’re all in this together. That we depend on one another ― not just from time to time, but all the time. And not only do we depend on each other for help in times of need, we also depend on each other to restrain ourselves for the sake of the whole community.
Small communities have always been defined by such social restraints: Traditions, institutions, norms and expectations. Marriage is a good example, as Berry explains: “Just because you have the capacity to look with desire on every desirable woman doesn’t mean that you ought to try to sleep with every one of them.”
In fact, Berry sees the institution of marriage as a kind of communal generosity. Marrying one person indicates fidelity ― not just to your chosen partner, but to the whole community. It’s an indication of restraint that sets others free. They may look upon you with desire, and they may be tempted to seduce you ― but they will restrain themselves because of their respect of the vow of restraint that you have taken. Or perhaps because of their respect of the institution through which you took that vow.
Now, I don’t think that we should return to all of the social and religious restraints of medieval village life. But I do think that we have to develop some new communal institutions and restraints in order to maintain the stocks of resources that we all depend upon. The ecologist Garrett Hardin suggests that one solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is to make a shared agreement to limit our individual use of our shared resources. He calls it “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” But what might such communal restraints look like?
One example is the city of São Paulo, which banned all outdoor advertisements in 2007. Just think about that: The more than 20 million inhabitants of the world’s fourth-biggest city have agreed to restrain themselves from advertising in order to defend the commons that is the city’s public spaces. And they appear happier because of it. A 2011 study showed that more than 70 percent of city residents find the ban to be beneficial.
In a similar vein, Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-biggest website, leaves hundreds of million dollars in potential ad revenue on the table each year. They believe that advertising would cheapen the encyclopedia and threaten the neutrality and impartiality of the content. Instead, it is funded solely through donations from its millions of users worldwide.
Another example is the Israeli kibbutz Ne’ot Semadar where I spent two months in the spring of 2011. In this small, tightly knit community there are no advertisements, no newspapers, no TV, no sweets, no fast food, very little alcohol, no mobile phones in the public space, and internet access was limited to the private homes or the communal internet room. And there was no need for money since there were no shops, and thus nothing to spend money on.
Going as far as they have at Ne’ot Semadar may sound draconian. But since everybody there have agreed to these restraints, it doesn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I felt that I had been given more space. To meet people. To learn.
For instance, since none of us received any money for our work, we all had to consider the true importance and value of our work. Both in terms of the part our labour played in the logical order of things, but also the moral implications of it: How others depended on it. What the consequences would be if we failed to do our job properly. Working in the goat yard, I had part of the responsibility for more than 200 goats. The goats depended on me. To feed them and bring them water. To milk them. To keep them alive. If I overslept and didn’t get up in time for the milking and feeding, the goats would suffer. The consequences would be immediate. It was a very tangible sense of responsibility.
In a way, this sense of responsibility was the most important restraint of all at Ne’ot Semadar. I knew that the kibbutz depended on me to do this work. And being part of this community, I was depending on them, too. But what were the limits of this responsibility? In the beginning I was constantly fretting: Am I working hard enough? Is this acceptable? What do the others think? Having no external measure of the value of my work, I was constantly badgering myself to work harder. The only way I could know for sure would be to be done. But on a farm there’s always work to do and rushing it rarely helps.
It took me a couple of weeks to realise that nobody was checking up on me. Nobody worried whether I was working hard enough. If anything they thought I was crazy to work so hard. So I stopped fretting. And I started to spend time with my own thoughts, dreams and longings. It gave me room to grow. To be ― or become ― me.
In a way, that was the real surprise: That living in a community with so many restraints actually made me feel more free. That I felt more free than I feel here in Copenhagen ― where I have so many more options, but only under the constant intrusion of people, products and companies that are trying to influence the decisions I make. That choosing restraint, paradoxically, made me happier.