Simple Living: Myths and facts about Amish life

Each January, millions of Americans think about simpler living from dieting to cutting back the family budget. In 2011, the need to trim our excess is not merely a fleeting mid-winter fad—it’s flat-out necessity for many of us. So, how about our classic American models of simple living? What can Amish and Shakers teach us?

Two new resources tell us a lot about the popularity of these spiritual paths that are woven deeply into the colorful fabric of American life. THIS WEEK, you’ll meet leading experts in both Amish and Shaker culture.
TODAY, we’re sharing a brief excerpt from a new book, “The Amish Way,” by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher. This is the team that earlier brought us the superb “Amish Grace,” about the 2006 shooting of Amish school children in Pennsylvania and the aftermath. That horrific event—and the healing response of the Amish community—raised fresh interest in this people often regarded as quaint farmers suitable for drive-by photography while on summer vacations.

Now, these scholars have produced “The Amish Way,” a fascinating nuts and bolts look at the diversity of Amish culture nationwide. Yes, that word “diversity” is appropriate, since Amish groups vary widely in the level of modern technology they allow. Core beliefs are a different matter, though, and—if you’re among the many Americans who occasionally dream of throwing away your cell phone and turning Amish—then The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World will help you sort out myths and facts.


This brief section appears more than halfway through the book, sorting out some of the most common answers to the wistful question we raised above:

When outsiders mention what they admire in Amish life, they often list benefits that are enmeshed with what we’ve called Amish spirituality. Are these benefits just imagined? Some of them are, or at least they’re overglorified. We know unhappy Amish people and have heard stories of discontented folks who left Amish life for the English world. Still, there are real benefits of Amish life that pull others toward them.

One benefit in the eyes of some outsiders is a secure faith: Amish people know what they believe, live their lives with conviction, and spend little time fretting over big theological questions. Of course, not every Amish person demonstrates this sort of steadfastness, but most of them do. Even teenagers, who sometimes test worldly lifestyles during Rumspringa, rarely abandon basic Amish beliefs about God, the church, and the Christian life. And it’s common for people who are born Amish but never join the church to claim some Amish values.

Many observers also see serenity in the Amish way, a peacefulness they often contrast to their own lives. (…) A recent study suggests that this view is more than nostalgia for rural life. When researchers asked Amish and non-Amish women if they felt “overloaded,” 50 percent of the Amish women reported no stress in their lives, compared to 35 percent of non-Amish women living in the same region. In fact, more than three times as many non-Amish women reported feeling moderate or severe stress as Amish women did. (…)

Along with being secure and serene, the Amish strike many outsiders as content. This judgment, fostered by picture-perfect images of one-room schools, sturdy Amish farmers, and happy Amish children, can be overdrawn. Some aspects of one-room schooling may be attractive, but probably  not the lack of indoor plumbing. Farming is hard work, frequently dangerous, and economically perilous. (…)

But although it’s possible to exaggerate Amish contentment, it does seem that many Amish people have satisfying lives. Their own writings often list contentment as a by-product of plain living, which the study of Amish women confirms. For instance, 95 percent of Amish women said they enjoyed life most of the time, compared to 80 percent of non-Amish women. Fewer Amish women felt sad, fewer experienced crying spells, and fewer felt disliked by others. They also reported sleeping more restfully.

A tight-knit community is yet another feature of Amish life that appels to many outsiders. It’s not unusual for an Amish person to have 70 first cousins, with many of them living within a 10- to 20-mile radius. But it’s not just biological kin who make Amish communities feel like a big family. (…) A church where everyone knows your name offers each person a profound sense of belonging. (…)

These four things—security, serenity, contentment and community—sit atop the list of virtues many people see in Amish life. At times wistful observers exaggerate them, but we are convinced they are real. Despite Amish aversion to boasting, many of them mention these same qualities when they talk about their way of life. Being Amish is not about seeking a good life, they are quick to say. It’s about honoring God and living lives of obedience. Still, they would add, for those who remain faithful to God, there are blessings on this side of eternity, too.

REMEMBER: You can purchase The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World at Amazon now.

OR: You may want to order the earlier Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy also available at a discount from Amazon.

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