Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Anna's Choice

Your comments to my last post, How Is Anna Doing? really have made me think. About community and belonging; about personal freedom and choice; and about how the Amish preachers are right when they say that you are either Amish or not. They say you cannot have it both ways; you are either separate from the world, or you're part of it.

Anna has chosen to be part of her community, which means she needs to obey the rules of the church. All this time, I've been hoping that she still feels like she has a choice about leaving again. Then the other day, I examined that thought. That is me imposing what I value onto Anna. Like many people in the dominant culture, I like having choices: anything from what I wear to charting the course of my life. But choice is not something the Amish value. They value obedience. And that is why they have a strong sense of community and I don't.

I have been thinking about the comment an Amish man made in the film, "The Amish: Shunned." He said, "You lose obedience, you lose the church." I thought at first that sounds too simple or too pat a statement, so that it borders on being an absolute. But when I thought about it, I realized that I cannot think of one tightly-knit community in which there is not some authority that people need to submit to in order to be a part of that community. 

I am still contemplating all these concepts, so please bear with me. I have not yet thought through how one should discern and respond to corrupt authority. The Amish always claimed that obeying the bishop is the important thing, even if the bishop isn't always right. But that does not take into account that our ancestors, the Anabaptists, rebelled against a corrupt authority during the Reformation movement. And I don't know how the Amish reconcile this idea with the case of Sam Mullet, either. So for now, I am using the concept of obeying authority without having thought through all the hefty issues surrounding the term "authority." 

Most of us do want it both ways. We want to be part of a community, but we don't want to pay the price that goes with that. We don't like losing our privacy.  In a community, other people might find out "our business." In a community, someone else might be making a choice that is rightfully ours to make. In a community, we lose our personal freedom.

In the dominant culture it is assumed submitting to any authority is a bad thing. We cringe at the words "authority" and "obey." We worship the words "choice," "privacy," and "personal freedom." But what has that  gotten us? Nothing we choose is good enough to be permanent, because there is always the thought lurking in our minds that there may be a "better" choice out there. This leads us to buying technologies that we know are only temporary, yet we're paying prices that seem like they should be buying us something for a lifetime — they certainly would have a generation ago. Then they cause us headaches and frustration when something doesn't work properly. We have to buy products to "protect" the technologies we buy, otherwise someone can steal our information and possibly our identity. Thus we end up losing our privacy anyway — to some unknown entity.

And think about our choices. We have a world of them open to us: so many, it becomes mind-boggling. And yet when it comes to the clothes women wear, it seems most of them submit to some arbitrary authority that determines what's "in style." The other day I was driving through the University of Massachusetts campus, and I saw four women crossing the street together. They were all wearing black tights. Not any other color, but black. Not any other style, but tights. They may as well have been wearing a uniform. So, how is it that these women all had a world of choices for what to wear that day, but they all settled on black tights?

And personal freedom: it's as if we forgot to teach our sons and daughters the ability to tell right from wrong. In this culture, the only thing it's okay to be judgmental about is judgment itself. To be politically correct, we need to be "tolerant," right? But when we lose judgment, we also lose our ability of discerning right from wrong. Is it any wonder that so many of our young people have gone adrift on the sea of choice by choosing drugs, alcohol, gambling, and violent computer games? Without moral guidelines, people tend to make choices that bring instant gratification. There is no desire to make a decision that will delay their gratification, or does some good for others, because it all has to do with what feels good in the moment. In a word, it becomes debauchery. 

I have been contemplating for a long time why people are so drawn to the Amish. I constantly have people asking me how they can join. I imagine it is the sense of community that they are drawn to. I wonder: do these people realize that they need someone else to be their authority and tell them right from wrong? Do they, at least on some level, recognize that self-denial and self-sacrifice are two of the ingredients necessary to become part of an Amish community? Or do these people think they are going to become part of the community without sacrificing anything?

I think the Amish represent to us something we have lost in our own culture. People my age and older remember what it was like to live in neighborhoods that were also communities, even if they were not Amish. There were neighborhood cookouts and get-togethers, homemade baseball diamonds and basketball hoops where the neighborhood children gathered to "shoot baskets." And everyone knew everyone else's business — that is always the downside of being part of a community. That, and the fact that you had to submit to authority. That was in the time when parents were authority figures, even to the neighborhood children who were visiting. Teachers and administrators in schools were respected for their authority. But with communities, as with many other aspects in life, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot reap the benefits without sacrificing something.

Now to bring this all back to Anna and the choice she made to go back to her community. After reading your comments and contemplating the issues they've raised, I've come around to realizing that perhaps it is wrong of me to hope Anna will leave again. I have a hard time coming to terms with the thought that I may never speak to Anna or hear her voice again. But that is selfish. If Anna is willing to make that sacrifice to be a part of her community, then I need to find a way to come to terms with my loss. By going back, Anna has gained something many of us long for, and yet we are not willing to make the sacrifice it would take to make that choice for ourselves.

I have to admire the choice Anna made. Perhaps she possesses a strength I don't have. I know most people think that "submitting to authority" and "weak" go together, but maybe submitting to authority requires an inner strength I don't have. And while I am staring at my computer screen, watching the cursor blinking, Anna is likely finishing up another day of teaching school in her community.  

Anna's choice was to give up her ability to make choices, at least about the course her life takes. On some level, I understand this, though I could not have chosen this myself.

Thank you for your comments. and for making me think about Anna's choice differently. 

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