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.
25 thoughts on “Anna’s Choice”
What a post to make one think. Yes, what I long for is community, someone who cares if we are ill or just how we are doing. We have lived in our home for nearly a year and never had a visitor, not even from our church. Nor a phone call or note. I tell you it makes me sad to see people to busy with their own lives to have that sense of community. I have found more care from people I have never met except on facebook. Sad it has come to this to find a community.
Michelle, I think that Facebook has become our new neighborhood… instead of talking over picket fences, we have words and photos on FB, which doesn’t really allow for taking into acount eye contact, body language, or tone of voice, and it certainly doesn’t allow one to hug.
I know the feeling… I’ve lived in this town for five years, and I have few friends. I’ve volunteered on several committees, and have invited others over. We have retreated into our “private” homes and isolate ourselves in front of screens of various sorts, and we live a lonely existence.
I don’t know what the answer is for us to have more of a sense of community, but I have a sense it has to do with limiting the time we spend using our various technologies and spending more time with one another and communing with nature.
Except we have forgotten how to come together in our hyperindividualistic culture. What a conundrum we’ve created.
Saloma,this is very thoughtful and reflects a journey over time. It made me think of an Old Order friend here in Va. who was a long time friend of my family in Indiana. When he moved to Va. to marry a woman from here, he came under the authority of a slightly stricter group and bishop. I realized that our visits (by something he said) to his home could cause conflict between him, his wife and their church, so out of respect for that, we limit our visit/contact. I also thought of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., upon whose principles my little Presbyterian congregation were founded. They give strong emphasis on covenanting to follow certain spiritual and community practices. Some members are covenanted and others choose not to be “that committed.” It allows for freedom and grace. But of course that does not affect one’s family relationships as it does in the Amish community. Thanks for continuing to struggle through these complexities, in “public.”
Thank you, Melodie, for your thoughts. It’s always hard when someone else’s rules affect those of us who are not part of a community… as with your friend and for us with Anna. But that is part of life, and I need to accept that. It sounds like you have also.
Blessings to you.
I loved this post and like the commenter above I long for community and for people who really care. We left our church with promises of others keeping in touch with us, it has not happened. I have spoken to a couple of members only when I have reached out to them. Not one has reached out to us to find out how we are doing. It has truly broken my heart and made me realize that what we thought we had at our church was truly not what we had. I have said many times I should have been born amish as I love community and the idea of having others in which to share out lives with. I live on a small farm right now and have even lived off grid for a time. I also understand no community is perfect and of course there will be things we don’t like, but in all honesty that is how it is now, in our dominant culture. I think some flourish in the way of life like the amish and others would not, I personally feel I would do very well in a community setting with others that truly care about one another and not just on the surface or in words. Thank you for this post it was very timely.
Hello HL, thank you for stopping by. I think it’s important to remember that in a given group with a strong sense of community, the focus is on what is good for the group, not the individual. It sounds like the church you left had a strong sense of community, which means individuals within the community are cared for so long as they are part of that group. When people leave, and new people come in, it is the new people who get the attention and caring, because they are now part of the group.
This is true for the Amish as well. There is small-mindedness, competition, and pettiness that goes on in their communities, too. In fact, my husband and I were talking about that last night at dinner… how I didn’t really have close friends in the Amish… and I don’t feel like anyone truly cared about me other than just on the surface.
That said, there are systems in place to help one another out in times of crises that the dominant culture does not have. Your neighbors and relatives will show up when there is an injury or death, to help with whatever needs to be done. Then the community togetherness is something to behold.
There are other times, though, when it can be stifling to be part of a tight community where everyone knows your business, and every action can be criticized. So each time we feel nostalgia about communities, we need to remind ourselves what we would have to give up to be a part of them. I know I could not do what Anna did.
What an articulate, thoughtful and, I think, accurate reflection on the personal costs/sacrifices required to be Amish…or in community. Those sacrifices have the rewards of belonging, shared joys/sorrows, and when the leader (authority) is benevolent leave little more to be desired. I, like you, think it takes incredible inner strength, perhaps more than either of us have. My hat is off to Anna.
LaVina, thank you for your thoughts. You, of all people, knows what we’re discussing. I think even with a benevolent leader, there can be pettiness — because the Amish are human like anyone else. But again, one has to take the good with the bad. And if you can find it in your being to submit to the authority of the church, it is not a bad life for many Amish. Maybe someday Anna will experience a less extreme Amish environment. I actually think that is where she would be happiest. But then again, who am I to say?
Thank you again for stopping by.
Reading this and the comments makes me ponder Pinecraft.If there ever is a community without strong authority leaders, it is Pinecraft. But Pinecraft really doesn’t count because this is only for a season. A season where you can sort of do what you want to do while you are here…
Katie, I cannot wait to experience Pinecraft! We will be there in a few short weeks.
In terms of Amish and strictness, Pinecraft is at the liberal end of the spectrum and Anna’s Swartzentruber community, is at the strictest end. They aren’t allowed to ride in cars, nor are they allowed to take a side trip BY BUGGY for sight-seeing. (Her brother and his wife had to make a confession in church for doing that once.)
I sometimes wonder if whoever started Anna’s group became stricter than they were in Ohio. I’ve never heard of some of the extremes like the ones in her community.
Katie, I cannot wait to meet you! David and I will be talking at the Selby Library on April 2 at 11 AM. We can take you there if you’d like.
I greatly look forward to meeting the two of you in a few short weeks. I know some strict Amish churches get stricter over the years. In my last years of living in Ohio we had Swartzentruber neighbors and I over heard one woman telling Mom how their church is getting more strict, that they have now forbid the use of the sifter to sift flour for a cake etc. Sifting flour was not necessary. Obviously a few woman took pride in their fine cakes.
Katie, this is exactly how it struck me when Anna would tell me about the things that had been “op-zott” in church… including how fruit is arranged on a platter (or something to this effect) for a wedding. In my mind it’s absurd, and why I keep hoping Anna will find a less strict church to live in.
We’ll have lots to talk about… looking forward to it!
I once wrote a paper about boxes. What I proposed is that… People who are thought of as thinking “outside of the box” are often looked to as creative leaders. But when it comes to world-views, I have yet to meet a boxless person. No matter what the religion or lack thereof, we all adhere to the rules of some kind of box. As we evolve as individuals we merely change the size and shape of our boxes. Possibly we might even change boxes altogether, but still we live in boxes. What is there about boxes that draws us? Could a human exist for long outside of a box? My theory is that boxes comprise community, relationship, love, among other things without which we as humans cannot exist. Or perhaps it could be better stated that without these elements in some form we cannot exist as humans.
Aleta, you’re right, we need some frame of reference… otherwise we would not have our feet on the ground, and we’d be floating out in space somewhere instead. I suppose being earthbound does put us in a certain frame of mind… we even live in “boxes” called homes. You’ve given me food for thought.
I highly respect your blog post about Anna, and think it’s neat God has shown you this perspective, but I don’t think we are called to completely give up our individualism. I think putting community life or the sense of belonging above God’s planned purpose can be an idol. I too came from a “strict” conservative church that stemmed from the Anabaptist movement and have seen many church members sacrifice independence to belong or follow what the elder says. Where is this Biblical? (I’m not being sarcastic but really posing this question of where this is in the Bible?) New Testament scripture often talks about the dangers of putting traditions/religious practices over doctrine like the Pharisees and religious leaders. So my personal opinion is that the pressures put on church members and family to conform to the church rules that are not written in the Bible is not ok. I know if we seek God with our whole hearts He will provide a “community” in our lives. He hears the desires of our hearts :) Does that make sense? I have recently found your blog and really enjoy reading it. You have a gift of writing from the Lord for sure!
Hello Christy. I understand and appreciate your perspective, and it’s one of the questions I ponder. I think these Protestant principles are what this country’s principles are founded upon… that rugged individualism comes out of the idea that we can have an individual relationship with God. But therein lies the tension… where does the individual “yield” to the greater good or the good of the community? Humans have the potential to do so much good, and we also have the power to do great evils. We would like to think that we are each responsible for ourselves, but not every person chooses good over evil. And sometimes evil choices are made in the name of God. In an Amish community, there are other people to call into question your questionable actions. Thus a person in the community develops a social conscience. And I think that is what is missing in our individualist society. I really don’t know the answers here… I merely bring up the questions.
Thank you for your interest in my blog and many blessings to you along the roads you travel.
Giving in to authority for the sake of gaining a strong sense of community makes sense, and is so dependent, on the person in authority making rational decisions. How does not shifting flour or not taking a pleasure buggy ride make one live a more Christ like life? In my opining these types of rules is what would drive so many would be Amish crazy and likely to fail at being Amish. Saloma your blog and your discussion on Eric’s site about your new book has caused me to reflect on what we long for in our lives. I am about your age and I remember the days of spanking in school (for good reason), playing pick up baseball with the neighbor kids, going to my grand parents farm on the weekends to meet family and all the simple pleasures that were abundant back then. This is what people see in the Amish, that they still are living the pleasures of when times were much simpler, families stronger and convictions steadfast.
Since today is St. Pat’s day an Irish blessing to you…May you live as long as you want,but not want as long as you live.
Derek, I’m so glad you stopped by. I’m with you, the pettiness and obsurdity of those rules make me shake my head and ask, “But why?” And that is why I’m here, and not there. Having said that, I will attempt to answer the question of obedience from the Amish perspective. Their belief is that obedience is for its own sake a good thing, and what is needed for the good of the community. It doesn’t matter to them whether the matter is a small one, or of more importance… obedience is the key. Now the more reasonable Amish (at least in my mind) don’t make rules about small things like sifting flour and they allow their members the freedom of traveling and enjoying God’s creation.
I think you are spot on with the feelings about nostalgia and what people see in the Amish. It is my opinion that our technology is what separates us and keeps us in our own little world, without a knowing how to come together as a community. There are hardly any common causes, and if so, we throw money at them from our private computers, in our private offices. Of course we also have to remember that there were injustices that happened back then as well. “Nostalgia is like a file that removes the edges of the good old days.” Forgetting who wrote that, but it’s true. Along with the spanking that may have been deserved, there were teachers who were mean and took their frustrations out on their students. Along with playing pick up baseball, there was bullying that happened out of sight of adults. And so on. Which brings up another point I’ve made about the sons and daughters we raised. We were so busy advocating for them, that we removed their struggles and consequently they did not develop their psychic muscles. I certainly can speak for myself that I over-compensated with my two sons for not having had any advocates when I was a child. So you raised a whole lot of interesting issues in that paragraph. Thank you for that beautiful Irish blessing and may you be blessed in the same way.
I’m very blessed in that I have a supportive, loving community in which I belong. Though I left the church where I met them we are still close and can call each other if there is a need. Or if there isn’t a need. I can’t say we see each other every week, but when we do regroup we pick up where we left off. We listen to each others’ problems, watch each others’ kids, carpool, cook meals for one another if a new baby is on the scene or if someone is sick. We go on outings together, meet at parks, have picnics. I call them when I need a referral for a repairman or plumber. One thing I can say for certain, it’s easy to meet people when you have young kids. That’s how I met all of my community girlfriends.
It’s taken a long time for me to become part of a tribe. I’m in my 40’s and just now feel semi-content with what God has placed before me. I say semi-content because there will always be an empty space in my heart until the day I meet Jesus face to face. This world, it’s not my home.
I can see why the Amish keep their walls up high. Much in this world is horrific. And who wants their little lambs to be a part of it. All you have to do is look at magazine covers at every checkout counter in America. And tv…oh please, turn it off. We swim in a fish tank of sin and evil. Seems every week I’m shocked at something that’s pushed just a little further into obscenity. It means nothing to see a woman’s breasts and rump pictured on billboards, magazine covers, and mall advertisements. It disgusts me. I’ve complained to malls to no avail. They give some lame excuse which I don’t buy. No, I don’t blame the Amish one bit. I do wish they would use love rather than fear to keep their little lambs within the fold. I know they see the restrictions as love but shunning looks like anything buy love to me.
Fran, the sense of community you describe is truly a blessing. You’re right, our children do bring us together with others. That may why it was relatively easy in Vermont to make friends. Many of those people are friends still, but they are three hours away.
You make a good point about why the Amish keep their walls up high. There is a lot wrong in the mainstream culture. But don’t forget, many of these same things happen in the community, too. Certainly not the billboards and the magazines within the community, but sexual abuse is worse in an insular culture… sometimes there is not even a frame of reference for the children who are being abused.
Using fear as a means of holding people together comes back to the authority and obedience dynamic again. And shunning is a means of discipline. Without that, who knows whether the culture would survive?
Thank you, as always, for sharing your insights.
Hi Saloma, thanks for providing your site address in Eric’s AA. I’m sure I will have many enjoyable hours reading what you write.
Seems also that we contemplate the same things, what you have written above is spot on and I agree whole heartily.
The one thing you question “The Amish always claimed that obeying the bishop is the important thing, even if the bishop isn’t always right”.
I would answer as follows.
1) The Bible teaches us that the secular government is ordained by God, either to be as a punishment to the people or as a blessing. The Bishop chosen by lot I see in the same light, chosen by God to be either a blessing or a reprimand to the community.
2) When the community obeys the Bishop without rebellion, it will soon become apparent if the Bishop has erred in his judgement and made a mistake. If so, he can rectify it because he has the undivided support of the community.
If there is rebellion in the community and some do not obey, it will never be clear if the error arose because the Bishop made a mistake or as a result of the disunity in the community.
When the community obeys and error arises, it can only be because the Bishop erred and because there was unity, the error can soon be sorted out.
This sounds like the kind of Amish thinking I could never come to terms with. And I’m not sure I can reconcile this thinking with what happened in the case of Sam Mullet.
So lets imagine that it’s been determined that the bishop erred… then what? Who is there to hold him accountable? And how does that get “sorted out?”
Also, what happens if the bishop is actually an abuser? Is the person being abused supposed to “obey” and somehow magically, the bishop will know he has erred? In my view, there is a great deal of misunderstanding of human motivations and psychology in this way of thinking.
On this one, we might not be seeing eye-to-eye, Dirk.
Blessings of peace,
I like the way you ruminate on the page here, Saloma. Your honest, questing, voice is your greatest gift as a writer. And since you are writing to discover your own thoughts and feelings, we readers jump in and do the same thing.
I think it is possible to have both community and individuality. I hope to show you some of the ways we try to do both when you visit. Soon! Eager to have some good time to talk. All best in your travels.
Thank you for your kind words. I am really looking forward to seeing how you and your community balance individual needs with the needs of the community. I need a good example of that balance.
I also look forward to our visit. Thank you for your good wishes. See you soon!
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your books and blog. I left the Anabaptist way of life 5.5 years ago. There is still a lot of pain for me with that. I am in treatment for both that and for an Eating Disorder. Thank you for helping me see that there is life and joy outside of that. This past week has been an especially bad one for me. I would love to meet you and talk in person. (I don’t know if you knew or heard of Elmo Stoll, but I was in his community for 7.5 years).
Thanks so much. I can relate to what you wrote in many ways.