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Do the Amish Judge Us?

August 2, 2010

This past weekend, I took Mr. B to look at some old trains in Lancaster, otherwise known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It’s always a shock to come upon rolling green hills, horses and buggies, silos attached to farm houses, men with long beards and suspenders. You feel, immediately, like you are transported in time. It’s a bit surreal. Cows lounge under large trees, corn stalks bend to the whirr of air-conditioned cars passing.

A ruddy eight-year-old boy approached me as I got in my car, and through garbled language, asked me if I wanted to buy the wooden trains he offered me in a plastic bag. From what I could gather, they would cost me 22 dollars. I said “No, thanks,” and wondered where his parents were. I bought a Shoo-Fly Pie (aptly named because it’s so sweet) from a woman at a roadside produce stand, and in her heavy rural accent, she told me it went well with coffee and ice cream. You drink coffee and eat ice cream? I thought. Just like me?

Despite our mutual love for baked goods, the lives of the Amish are, obviously, starkly different from mine. On a Saturday, while we suburbanites eat hamburgers and relish the old-time feel of a train ride through the country, the Amish are working, tilling fields, selling pies and fruit, trimming bushes and sweeping up dirt. In the sticky Pennsylvania heat, they wear long dresses and pants, hats and kerchiefs. What is their respite? How do they unwind, relax? Do they tire of their lives the way we on the outside do?

It seems that each time I come into contact with an Amish person, I am forced to think about the very divergent paths our lives have taken. Last year, very pregnant, I treated myself to a large cheese danish at the Amish bakery in a local farmer’s market. My husband had just gotten me an iPhone for my birthday, and I was conflicted about whether I should keep it. While on the one hand, it seemed the most fabulous toy an adult could imagine, a marvel of modern technology, I worried that it would tie me down, prevent me from being in the moment. Constant access to email and the internet is convenient, but it means constant access to the email and the internet, constant temptation to plug in.

I put my coffee and danish to the side while I pressed on apps and tried to type. The woman who had just sold me my danish sat near me with her own snack, and I almost blushed. What must she think of me, my focus not on the sights and sounds of people, a delicious breakfast, a growing belly, but my eyes glued to a small rectangular screen?

It’s typical to think that the Amish reject our lifestyle. After all, each teenager experiences a period called rumspringa, when they experiment with the technology and habits of the outside culture and choose whether or not to remain Amish. Since most do, it’s safe to assume that after using cell phones, driving in cars, drinking alcohol, and engaging with the rest of us, they recognize that so much of our lives are plagued with petty distractions that take us away from core beliefs and practices. Are we any happier with the latest iPhone or computer software, with flat-screen TVs and GPS systems in our cars? With fancy clothes? Washing machines? (I’ll go out on a limb here and say that yes, we are happier with washing machines, if nothing else.) How much of our lives are dictated by wants, by unnecessary, fleeting but alluring pleasures, elixirs that divert us from what might bring us greater happiness if only we took the time to step back and experience, acknowledge, breathe, know ourselves?

It would probably be more helpful to imagine that instead of rejecting our culture, we have rejected the ways of the Amish, the ways of old. We have bought into the values of progress and modernity, of forging our own paths and accepting the American ideal of individuality. If we admit it, this degree of freedom can be scary. To not know where this road leads us, to have to seek out rather than automatically be part of a community, to see the days stretching before us, knowing we must create them anew by ourselves.

I imagine there must be great relief, abundant comfort, in tilling a field your family has owned for generations, in hanging wet clothes in a pasture where the women before you–and the women before them–watched their children play.

Our power has gone out a few times this summer due to heavy storms. Aside from issues of heat during the bitter days of winter or air-conditioning during a heat wave, I see power outages as an opportunity. People gather on their porches, kids play outside, play with puzzles or read books, meals remain simple. A few months ago, a power outage at night meant that Husband and I lit candles and sat on the couch to think, to talk. We enjoyed the peace and the dim of our living room; we went to bed early and slept well. Each time this has happened, I greet the return of power with a bit of relief and a bit of sadness. What might we learn about ourselves and each other without the din of electronics keeping us awake, keeping us distracted?

Image: “pennsylvania barn” by Anthony Citrano via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.
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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

TheKitchenWitch August 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm

I’m taking the iPhone plunge today–what a timely post! I do hope it won’t control my life…

I always admire the Amish for allowing the boys a period of experimentation before they decide how to live their lives–it seems very trusting and open-minded of them.

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Jana August 2, 2010 at 9:21 pm

I think they allow the same for girls…am I wrong? (I know some feminists might get up in arms about this post, but I’m trying to look at it through a different lens.)

Good luck with the iPhone. It is a bit overwhelming at first.

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Kate August 2, 2010 at 11:01 pm

I would bet community has a lot to do with it too. Imagine if you could choose to live with your family all around you, and still know that bellies will be full and bodies kept comfortable? My family has spread throughout the country for generations now, so that is a complete impossibility for me. On the flip side, if an Amish (I believe girls and boys have that free period) teen chooses to leave that community, they are shunned, no longer part of the world that they know so well.
If there were a halfway place, with a clothes washer, the choices would be different.
And, yes, the distractions of our world are too many. It is a relief to be away from the constant influx of ideas, of energy. But it is a great gift too to be able to read your words almost instantly from so many miles away.

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Jana August 3, 2010 at 12:31 am

I forgot about the part you mention–that leaving the community means you are shunned. I guess that might prevent people from breaking out on their own, huh?

It is a great gift to read your words, too! I was very aware as I typed this post that I am in love with technology at the same time I’m wary of it. I am probably not alone in that. :)

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Allison @ Alli 'n Son August 3, 2010 at 1:30 am

This is something I ponder all the time. Would I be happier if my life was simpler? No blog to write, no blogs to read. Nothing to search and occupy my time, and my mind? Some days I really think about giving up a lot of it, but then I realize that I would be bored out of my mind. Or maybe I’d just read a lot more.

But, in the end, I love my computer, my iPhone and the internet. And when I need to, I can just turn it all off.

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Lyndie August 3, 2010 at 4:08 am

I grew up in the Amish country of central, PA, but gradually moved to more and more populated areas when I turned 18, the current one being suburban Philadelphia. However, I’ve always nurtured a strong bond with animals and nature regardless of where I’ve lived. Balance between technology (which keeps me connected to information) and nature (which keeps me connected to the life force) is key. I feel lost without my cell phone or internet access, but my soul dries up without frequent interactions with horses, dogs, and the forest. If I had to choose between the urban pace and Amish simplicity… give me a woolen frock and an apron (although I would certainly go through technology withdrawal).

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Jana August 3, 2010 at 5:48 pm

I’m curious about whether you get used to seeing the Amish when you live around them. Is it possible to make friendships, friendly acquaintances? Or are those sorts of relationships looked down upon by the Amish community? I think we know so little because they stay so closely connected.

Thanks for visiting, Lyndie!

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Lyndie August 3, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I don’t know if those relationships are looked down upon by either side, but, to my experience, they don’t happen. They are separate and divergent entities. You do see a lot of Amish men working construction jobs in State College, however. They are a viable source of cheap labor in rural PA. And, yes, I got very used to seeing the Amish. Now when I do, it reminds me of home.

(Love the blog, Jana!)

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george June 4, 2013 at 3:39 pm

I would assume that most don’t have many close personal relationships outside the community because much of an Amish persons day is spent working around the home. generally all work is done by members of the family themselves, so there are no chances to have “work buddies” outside of the community. I would assume that the Amish that go into town to conduct business would make casual acquaintances with some of the people around them. I live in Amish country (Denver, Pa, just outside of Ephrata) and have talked to a few Amish and a few Mennonites. All seemed pretty friendly, normal. One of the things i learned was the true reason for their absence of electronic technology. As far as phones, computers, etc go, the main reason why they don’t allow them is that they feel if a conversation is important to call or email someone about, it’s important to make the trip to have that conversation face to face. Then again, there are many different kinds of Amish, and Mennonites as well all with different rules on this and that.

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ShannonL August 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

Very interesting post, Jana. A lot to think about.

I have never come into contact with an Amish person. I would like to experience their lifestyle (for a short time!) and see what it’s like to just live with no distractions. But I hear ya on the washing machine! And all of the other luxuries that we take for granted. I can’t imagine living without them. And yes, I think they probably do judge us!

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Gappy August 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I wonder whether the majority of Amish teenagers in the end return to their own communities because they decide that that way of life is more meaningful, or because it is simply what they know. It is hard to leave behind your entire support system – it is hard for people to leave any sort of close community – especially when that community provides fairly hard and fast guidance as to what is right and wrong, and what you can and can’t do. Sometimes less choice can be easier.

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Jana August 3, 2010 at 5:43 pm

You make a really good point, Gappy. Less choice is easier. Sometimes, I think I long for it to be just a little easier. But overall, I am too independent a spirit to live that life.

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Stacia August 3, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Too bad there aren’t any Amish bloggers to offer their viewpoint … which only reiterates the idea of “separate and divergent,” I suppose. I, too, sometimes think technology is too pervasive. I even catch myself wondering how people communicated and learned things before the Internet. But, of course, I know we did, and I know it’s possible. Would I be able to live that way now?? I don’t know …

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Jane August 4, 2010 at 1:57 am

Such an important post and interesting perspective. We started (last year) an unplugged weekend, once a month. After our first one we realized how distracting being plugged in truly is. We’ve learned balance. We’ve rediscovered family time, reading, game playing and long walks. As a result, these activities have spilled over into our “non unplugged” times. While not always perfect, we’ve learned to appreciate each other, down time AND technology.

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Leslie @ Five to Nine August 10, 2010 at 11:15 am

Love this, Jana – so insightful and thought-provoking. I can’t help feeling that as technology advances, so do our needs (or dependencies). I want to resist it, but I won’t let my husband give up his cell phone (ours are the free-after-rebate variety, and not at all “Smart,” but still). I want to be rural, living out of eyesight and earshot on my land, but I need a car in order to make a decent morning commute. I love to hang my laundry out to dry, but sometimes I cheat and soften it in the dryer afterward. In a couple of weeks I’ll pick our tart wild plums and can some jelly – which I’ll seal in jars boiled on an electric stove.
I admire the deliberate balance Jane talks about, and I hope to have more of it soon when we return to our life in our own home, at a more normal pace. Your post and its responses has inspired me to keep my stack of unread books taller and easier to find.

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Jana August 10, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Leslie, I really understand your desire to be rural. More and more, I long for a cabin in the woods, a nice breeze, shadows and chirping birds. Your comment reminds me a little of my recent battle with Comcast. We had this promotion to get a minimal number of channels and On Demand. Then they upped my monthly bill, and I called and said that I didn’t want to pay more. It was like a game of chicken, because she wanted me to accept a higher price and I said I’d go down to 12 channels. The cable man came, took away our boxes (no more Disney channel, Mr. B), and I’ve been telling myself how little I need cable. I watch the occasional House Hunters episode, that’s all. I can certainly live without it, especially when I have such a tall stack of books! Really, more channels just adds more…bleh.

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Erica@PinesLakeRedhead August 18, 2010 at 1:31 am

I’ve visited Lancaster County before and have also felt a little bit embrassed about my technology when around the Amish. But I’ve never felt judged.

As for power outtages, that’s when we’ve played some of our best games of Scrabble! I wish I could convince my guys to have unplugged periods more often.

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