The Amish and the Myth of the Simple Life

I know I’m going to come to regret confessing to this in public, but I kind of love Real Simple, the glossy lifestyle magazine that’s not actually glossy, but rather beautifully matte and spare. Real Simple is like O magazine, but without the socio-lurid psychic grandeur that is Oprah; Martha Stewart Living minus performance anxiety; or Everyday with Rachel Ray (which I swear I have never opened) evacuated of the amped-up terror that spunky efficiency might consume every day of your life. Real Simple slides comfortably into the in between of all that with a serene absence of celebrity and modest photography of perfectly ordinary women in white cotton shirts and elegant-but-sensible shoes laughing with sophisticated girlfriends on generous beach house sofas.

But there’s much more, which is perhaps ironic for a magazine one might assume to be focused on less. To be fair, the masthead promises only “life made easier,” not rendered any less laden with consumerist hoarding. “Simplicity” in this light has little to do with little, while having everything to do with organizing objects, time, and relationships more efficiently. 

As I was contemplatively tearing out the helpful “prayer cards” provided in the most recent issue on the eight-step speedy travel workout, how to select the perfect cantaloupe, and how to clean the inside of my car in 15 minutes, I couldn’t help but think about the Amish. After all, the Amish are kind of the Gold Standard of American simplicity, illuminated as they remain by the candlelit glow of their seventeenth-century origins. If the Amish ate shaved aged Manchego cheese on their 15-minute weeknight turkey salads, Real Simple would be their Bible. Or at least we’d like it to be.

Americans have had an enduring fascination with the Amish, and lately they seem to be popping up everywhere. A recent article on the Huffington Post, for instance, reported on new research showing something of a population boom among the Amish, accompanied by a small but notable migration West to establish communities on less expensive real estate. Right on the heels of that, USA Today updated a Wall Street Journal story from last fall by way of covering the new crop of “bonnet rippers”—“Amish inspirational” romance novels that highlight a version of the simple practices and conservative faith (minus much of the radical pacifism that might be distasteful to the prime audience of conservative evangelicals who tend to favor the books) that characterizes life among Plain Folk in the American imagination. What’s up with our renewed interest?

Pimping the Amish

Fortunately, while I was mulling over all this, friends from back East with a vacation cabin in rural northwestern Pennsylvania (an area apparently now teeming with growing Amish families) happened to be in town. The Amish of my friends’ acquaintance are off-the-beaten-path Plain People, relatively unsullied by the tourist trade of post-Witness Lancaster, PA and central Ohio that induced five Amish twentysomethings to fritter away a perfectly good Rumspringa (the period of “running around” allowed Amish after they turn age 16 and before they formally choose to join the church) on the short-lived reality TV show Amish in the City. Neither are their kids the sullen, often violent, beer-swilling tweakers profiled in Lucy Walker’s disturbing documentary Devil’s Playground. They’re all just Adam and Steve’s neighbors—Amos-and-Hannah-from-the-block sorts who are happy to swap recipes for shoofly pie with the “bachelors” down the road. Go figure.

Now, it turns out that if you actually know Amish people (not just see them around town in their buggies or encounter them in the course of tourist commerce, but truly know their names and things about their daily lives on the basis of regular conversation), you will be very popular at a dinner party in Northern California. The mere mention of “Amish-raised, grass-fed organic beef” was enough to provoke spontaneous planning to raise venture capital for an online outlet for Amish goods and services. By the dessert course we were deep into a discussion of tongue-and-groove joinery that was no less pornographic than the staging of the discreet removal of a woman’s white cotton prayer cap in a Beverly Lewis novel. This simplicity—the warm, handcrafted loveliness of an Amish quilt; the rich, golden sheen of the yolk from an egg laid just this morning; the sweet, yeasted smell of bread cooling on a farmhouse windowsill—we all wanted more of this. Lots more.

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.

The neighborhood is used to the Gallagher’s neo-Amish vibe. Nonetheless, when Tim and the youngest Gallagher rolled around the block in a rickshaw, it got my attention. Down the block I moseyed, where I learned the Gallaghers have committed to getting their kids to and from school a mile-and-a-half away without using the family minivan. Since not all of the kids are old enough to ride bikes, Tim did what any high-tech, suburban plain person a mere fifty miles from Berkeley would do: he scoured Craigslist for a rickshaw.

The rickshaw in question is a 1950s model manufactured in Britain for the Indian bicycle taxi trade and imported to Berkeley for display in an antique shop before it was purchased for private use. As far as I could tell, it doesn’t come with an “easy button.” Even after spending buckets of elbow grease cleaning it up, repairing the chain, and replacing sundry potentially eye-gouging bolts, the Gallaghers’ one-speed rickshaw with bicycle escort will turn a quick drive to school into a forty-five minute roundtrip commute. All for love of the earth? Not entirely. Eileen Gallagher, a pediatrician, is quick to point out the fitness benefits of the daily ride to school, but that’s hardly the whole of it. “You know, they’ll be talking to each other the whole way,” she says.

“Efficiency isn’t everything. The kids and Tim will have that time together every day. They’ll see their friends and neighbors on the way. They’ll say, ‘hi.’ They’ll check in. Those interactions, even if they’re not about anything really important, are everything.”

Sweet, I thought, but, cripes, don’t you see each other every other blessed minute of the day? Clearly, the demands of simplicity go much further than winnowing down of our stuff or hopping off the grid for the weekend. We apparently actually have to deal with each other. A lot. I don’t know how that plays into the Gallaghers’ faith life, but I do know that kind of conversation and relationship is, ironically, often not the stuff of mainline religious practice.

The Complexity of Simple Connections

Mainline religious life for most Western Christians, Jews, and Buddhists is at best a once-a-week affair. The norm is much less than that, with more than sixty percent of Americans with an identified religious affiliation attending services less than once a month, according to recent Pew data. More than a quarter opts out of face-to-face engagement pretty much entirely. So, it stands to reason that a cultural milieu defined by a 24/7 religiosity and interpersonal engagement would be as uncomfortable for many of us in terms of actual practice as it is captivating as an exotic spiritual diversion. Hence our alternating fascination with and disdain for the religious practices of observant Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and other groups for which religious commitment grounds basic aspects of life.

I’ve begun to think that this is part of what makes so many people so nervous about the relationship between new digital media and religion. The “always on” quality of digital life can have a kind of Amish or monastic vibe about it for the religiously inclined, what with those Virtual Abbey monks constantly seeding our Facebook and Twitter pages with calls to prayer. Add to that digital micro-news from people from church popping up outside of a sterile passing of the peace and a quick howdy-do at coffee hour. Being socially and spiritually present to one another, even 140 characters at a time, is a demand to which many are not accustomed.

We imagine the Amish (and maybe the Gallaghers) living outside this hive of connectedness, but the reality is that their lives demand a level of interpersonal connection that is not entirely unlike that maintained by our teenagers as they text and tweet and post to their extended communities of friends and “friends.” Thus we hold out groups like the Amish as representing a lost ideal of American communitarian culture while often ignoring the opportunities for and impact of a much wider connection to others that is available on a global basis today.

Forms of Solidarity yet to be Invented

One does wonder, though, if our increasingly close digital and physical proximity to others of all sorts is wearing down the boundaries between us without entirely eroding our differences; if it is possible that we are moving out of an easy domesticating or exoticizing of the Other toward a more robust form of what Jacques Derrida called “cosmopolitanism”— the idea that people can form community on the basis of a shared commitment to hospitality, rather than boundary-setting hostility, toward those who are different. He tracks its development from the Greek Stoics through Pauline Christianity as a critique of the sectarianism of the ancient religious milieu, taking a cue from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2:19-20):

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”

This ethical or spiritual cosmopolitanism calls us, Derrida insists, to be “allied to each other according to forms of solidarity yet to be invented.”

This variety of cosmopolitanism is not something to which the Amish themselves do not seem to be opposed, having come to America as religious refugees of a sort, after enduring decades of persecution as Anabaptists and separating from what they saw as more culturally-accommodating Mennonite groups. The testimonies of Anabaptist martyrs preserved in the 1158-page tome, The Bloody Theatre; or Martyr’s Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, first published in 1660 in Germany, remains popular reading in Amish homes. Their separateness surely draws as much from this “dangerous memory” as from doctrinal mandates. Indeed, when they immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, their buggies, hats, and simple garb hardly stood out.

“But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them,” wrote the Anabaptist martyr Anna of Rotterdam in a letter to her son before her execution in 1539. Few of us are up for that, grass-fed beef and artisan cheese notwithstanding. But maybe the significance of our fascination with groups like the Amish today, or at least of the opportunity presented by it, is not so much in our romanticizing, commodifying, or otherwise objectifying of these Others, but rather in the nature of our real or imagined encounters with them in themselves.

Perhaps it’s not just that we’re looking for something we think we’ve lost, for an easy hit of a simplicity that probably never existed. Maybe we’re practicing a new mode of engagement that the apparent simplicity of Amish life allows us—and perhaps them—to more safely envision.

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