I’ve always been intrigued with the ideas of starting over and choosing to live a simpler life.
While convalescing this past weekend I watched three documentaries on the National Geographic channel about the Amish. I lived in Switzerland for awhile in my twenties and was surprised when I saw the movie Witness and realized the Amish characters were speaking Swiss German. Years later, while visiting family in Montana, I learned about the Mennonites, who also hail from Switzerland and Southern Germany.
One of the shows I watched this past weekend was on Amish weddings, another on leaving the Amish community, and the last (and most interesting) on a group of teenagers as they went on their Rumspringa (running around) in England. In some Amish sects, adolescents around the age of 16 are allowed to leave the community and “sow some wild oats” to decide if they want to become baptized in the Amish church. Most usually return and get married soon thereafter. If they choose not to return, they are shunned by everyone, including their families.
What I found interesting was the differences between their world and our own, as seen mostly through the eyes of the young women. For instance, the girls are immediately struck when getting off the train in London with how “connected” everyone is to some type of gadget. One of them makes the comment that everyone is listening to music or looking at their phones, and no one meets the eyes of the people they pass. She finds the lack of human interaction sad and somewhat confusing. When a young Londoner takes them on a tour of his neighborhood and points out locations where friends of his have been shot or killed, the Amish are stunned. They have no schema to work from, don’t understand the ideas of gangs and senseless killing, and one of the girls mentions that crime is unheard of where she comes from. There are many rules to follow, and they speak often of all the rules.
The Amish kids mostly want to be outdoors and speak of their connection to nature, something I can relate to. One of the girls is excited by her first trip to the ocean, and later wants to try surfing, though the decision whether to don a wetsuit in order to surf becomes a moral dilemma for her and she struggles with modesty and showing so much of her body to the others. The girls are understandably embarrassed by the way the English girls dress, especially in bikinis on the beach. One of them describes how this must be a “terrible temptation” for the boys. She says this with no judgment towards the English girls (all of the Amish kids are unbelievably nice and nonjudgmental throughout the entire program), and says something further about how hard it must also be on the girls to always worry about how you look.
I found the Amish girls’ views on modesty and sex to be incredibly interesting and even empowering as women. Everything is bible based for them, but there is something powerful about the freedom to not have to worry about beauty and sexuality, and in knowing that your beauty comes from within–and that your entire community feels the same way. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not be bombarded with the message from society that you must be beautiful, sexy, and thin almost from the moment you’re born.
The girls seem more able to withstand most of the vices of modern society during their trip, but the Amish boys, as noted by some of the young British guys, “drink more than we do!” The upper class British teens tell how they start drinking to get drunk around the time they turn 14. The Amish boys certainly know how to throw back their beer, and they are very well liked for their openness and lack of self-consciousness. One of the English girls is very talkative and hyper and comes across as being what we would call “wild.” The Amish girls don’t quite know what to make of her, and say so, but they never criticize or speak ill of her.
One of the Amish girls comments on how the women seem to try so hard to be like the men. She talks about how there is a clear delineation between the work of women and men in her culture, and the way she describes it makes sense. I still have to wonder, however, how many Amish men and women struggle against the confines of their predetermined roles in life, even if it remains an unvoiced struggle.
The English teens ask the Amish boys why they don’t have girlfriends, and they answer they don’t want one. The English boys are incredulous. The Amish know that if and when they go back they will sooner rather than later decide to court and marry someone, and there is no divorce. One doesn’t just “have a girlfriend” when one is Amish, and there is, of course, no premarital sex.
The Amish are saddened that one of their new friends comes from a divorced family, and speak of how hard that must have been growing up without a father. It’s something they can’t imagine, and it’s obvious that family is everything to the them. They also notice that the English teenagers seem to have a lot of time to themselves, that they don’t really “do” much of anything all day, as opposed to Amish children who start working when they turn three years old. Life may be slower, but everyone works hard. One of the girls makes the comment that the English teenagers are older than them but seem “very immature.” She’s right, they do.
The Amish kids are taken to a local school and sit in on an American History lesson. They know nothing about the Declaration of Independence or other historical facts about the country, and they admit their parents do not vote. They know nothing about politics because they have no TV’s, though they do read the newspaper, if only for the weather forecasts. One of their hostesses brings up American politics at dinner and is met with blank stares from the Amish. Most are either homeschooled or attend school in a one room house with kids of all ages taught by one or two teachers, and all schooling officially ends at the age of 14.
One of the English girls is an abstract artist and shows the Amish kids how to paint using her technique. There are no art classes taught in Amish schools, and self-expression and calling attention to oneself are frowned upon. There are no frivolous decorations in their homes. Everything serves a function and is not valued in and of itself for its beauty.
The English kids take the Amish to a nightclub. The girls cover their ears and leave within thirty minutes. Though they love to sing (religious songs), and break into song while traveling in the car, they don’t like the loud garishness and modern music of the nightclub. In one of the other documentaries, one of the boys who has left his community sneaks back on Sunday nights to hear the singing from the church, and it’s touching that he still seeks connection with his old life in that manner.
In all three of the documentaries the young people seem to be very grounded, mature, and level-headed, even when they’re smoking and drinking beer. The ones who decide to leave and not go back do so mostly for religious reasons, or because they want to go to college. The most conservative of the girls surprised me at the end of the documentary when she admits that her trip to England showed her all the possibilities she has for her life and how she feels she could do anything she wants to do, something she won’t have if she stays Amish. One of the boys in the film about the Amish who choose to leave makes the comment that they all love their cars because it gives them so much freedom, and it’s the toughest thing for them to give up if they go back, as if driving a car symbolizes all the freedom they will lose.
What I found so interesting about the documentary was the way the Amish kids’ reactions to what we consider normal and everyday forced me to think a little deeper about how we live. I certainly wouldn’t want to become Amish and give up all my gadgets and personal freedoms, but it did make me think twice about how disconnected so many of us seem to be from those around us. We’ve traded human interaction for Facebook and use our phones and iPads to dull ourselves to the world around us. We ignore so much about the way we live, and take for granted that things could ever be different, or slower, or more simpler.
Seeing our world through Amish eyes, at times, made me want to close my own.