Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Thoughts on Why We Are so Fascinated with the Amish

As many of you know from posts I’ve written in the past, I have been contemplating why there is such a fascination for the Amish for quite some time. See my post An English Riddle and Thoughts on the English Riddle and A Mennonite Perspective. I’ve been asking this question in relation to the Mennonites. The Mennonites welcome people from all walks of life with open arms. Many Mennonites are born-again believers and so they believe in converting others, while the Amish don’t actively recruit people into their religion or culture. In fact, the Amish often discourage people from joining them. So my question has been, why are people not flocking to the Mennonite faith in droves and yet some people want to join the Amish when they are not so welcoming?

The film “The Amish” has triggered some new thoughts on the subject for me. For instance, Karen Johnson-Weiner said about the Amish “theirs is a lived faith.” That idea of a lived faith really intrigued me. And then I started thinking about the relationship that the Amish have to Jesus and I think that I may have discovered the fundamental difference between the Amish and the born-again believers. Though the Amish recognize Jesus as the son of God, who came to earth so that we may find everlasting life, it is Jesus on earth or Jesus as human with whom they identify. They strive to follow Jesus’ example and live their lives as Jesus lived his life on earth. Even to the point that they see Jesus as a martyr, they follow his example. So it seems there is no separation between the Amish culture and their religion, or what they believe from the way they live. Suzanne Woods Fisher, host of Amish Wisdom, has an Amish proverb posted on her blog: “Faith and works are the candle and its light — they cannot be separated.” In a world in which people often find their lives fragmented and disconnected from some greater meaning, it seems that the Amish have the answers many people are searching for.

I recently heard Mark Samels, Executive Producer of American Experience, being interviewed by Scott Lamar on Smart Talk, in which he articulated his feelings about Amish life. He said that one day he stood by a road in Pennsylvania, watching an Amish man plowing his field with a team of horses, while across the road his wife and kids were hanging up laundry on a spring day and the wind was blowing. He said, “I fell into this sort of reverie in a way.” He asked himself, “Could I simplify my life — get rid of all my stuff and get a little bit more attached to something more meaningful and be closer to my family?” He said he realized how we cannot have it all and that we make choices in our lives. He had to ask himself, “Would I be happy to only be educated to the eighth grade? Would I be happy not being able to travel the world like I’ve been able to do? Would I be happy then? You realize, you make choices in life. The Amish have made a really profound choice. Sometimes it looks really appealing and sometimes I’m glad that I can just watch them.”

First of all, these are my sentiments exactly and I grew up Amish and chose to leave. There are times when I imagine what my life would be like if I had stayed Amish and married someone in the community. Maybe I would have a dozen children. By now, most of them would most likely be married with children of their own, making me a grandmother many times over. I would be entering that time in my life when there isn’t a heap of work to be done every day and I could go visit with my grown children or get together with other women for a quilting. My life would be predictable and cyclical. Every two weeks I would go to church. Every spring and fall, I would go to Ordungs Church and then two weeks later to Communion Service. I would be attending many weddings throughout the spring, summer, and fall and funerals throughout the year. The Amish are steeped in tradition and their patterns of life are unchanging.

When I compare this to what my life actually is, I realize Mark Samels has hit on something profound with his few words about how we make choices in life and we cannot have it all. I was able to marry the love of my life. We have two healthy grown sons. I had the opportunity to acquire a Smith College education, which included an internship with Dr. Donald Kraybill and studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany for a semester. And I wrote a book about my life. So much of this could not have happened had I stayed in my Amish community. Nor would I have the freedom in my everyday life that I do — I love going biking with David and driving to book talks in our own vehicle. I don’t have to stay with the stable and predictable life I would be living as an Amish person — I get to be adventurous and satisfy my “Wanderlust.”

David and me on our wedding day, just before leaving on our honeymoon

Someone asked me at a recent book talk how I filled the void in my life that the loss of the Amish community created. My answer was, “I didn’t. It was a tradeoff. There are things I lost and other things I gained from leaving my Amish community.” The losses I endure can sometimes be painful, yet my Amish training has allowed me to accept this.

The messages we are bombarded with in the mainstream culture is that we can have it all — we can stay young; we can avoid pain; we can buy happiness or contentment — in other words, we can buy anything we want. However, the Amish represent something money cannot buy. From their martyred past and  and their deliberate choice to make hard work a part of their lives, they show us that being human means we do get sick and feel pain; we do get old; and that suffering and death are part of being human.  They believe that this is what Jesus exemplified by dying on the cross.

So in a culture in which we are often out of touch with the human condition, the Amish represent the alternative.

A very sad day — driving behind Mem’s funeral procession.

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