The Amish and the Myth of the Simple Life
Continued from previous page
Simple Isn’t Easy
Rest assured, however, none of us had much interest in the life from which these mere artifacts of simplicity emerged. This is, of course, the problem with the Amish; even for the Amish. Popular media such as the Walker documentary, the reality show (from which only one of the five participating Amish youth returned to their communities), several TV news magazine reports, and a more recent book by Tom Shachtman have highlighted the delights and perils of Rumspringa for youth who chafe at the restrictiveness of the Amish way of life. These “Amish Kids Gone Wild” spectacles of course always have a sensationalist ring, however much they document very real issues in Amish communities with things like drug and alcohol abuse—pretty much the same issues with which other parents and communities wrestle these days. We experience, I suppose, a certain socio-spiritual schadenfreude when we see the Amish failing so dramatically both at accepting the strictures of their own traditions and assimilating to the cultural riches, new technologies in particular, over which we ourselves are so often conflicted.
It turns out that, at least in more conservative “Old Order” Amish communities, most of kids come out of Rumspringa prepared to be baptized into the faith. Still, the Ordnung (the unwritten “grammar of order,” as Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill describes it, through which every aspect of daily life in an Amish community is organized) has to be a heavy yoke to bear. The blessings of strong family ties, wholesome work, and generosity in forgiveness and reconciliation with the repentant notwithstanding, I know I couldn’t get my round-faced self far beyond the mandate that women part their hair in the middle. Don’t even get me started on the drab uniform closed in the front with straight pins and the unflinching obedience to fathers, older brothers, husbands, and bishops required of women.
Beyond the limits of my personal vanity and what I hope are more robust principles, the Gelassenheit, or “yielding of the self” to both divine and earthly authority that is at the center of Amish simplicity is worlds apart from the commitment to “life made easier” offered by Real Simple magazine or imagined by my enterprising dinner companions. We all want our lives to be easier and less frazzled, but we don’t really want them to be simple. We want dollops of simplicity, rather, over long weekends in the autumn mountains of Vermont or gazing into an infinite wonder of ocean and sky. We’ll take our simplicity “to go,” that is. “Easy” is where we’d prefer to stay for the long haul.
Suburban Amish in the ’Hood
Of course there are exceptions. My neighbors down the street, the Gallaghers, for example, seem about as “Amish” as anyone in Silicon Valley might have the capacity to be. Neighborhood farmers with a passel of kids, the Gallaghers have turned over most of their front yard to seasonal vegetables. Just past the blackberries climbing a trellis that takes up the side of the house, the backyard sports a coop and pen for five egg-laying chickens (one for each kid).
The Gallaghers are hardly technology-spurning Luddites. But, not unlike the Amish, they tend to consider more carefully than most of the rest of us how to integrate technology and other conveniences into their lives. Thus, Tim hasn’t yet come upon a good reason to have an email account, and it might take Eileen a day or two to relay him a message via that medium. So, if you need to talk to him right now, you’re going to have to haul yourself down the street.