Marijke and I have always been at home in Amish communities, starting in 1963, when we were exploring a country lane near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and an observant Amish farmer noticed our curiosity in a water powered pump mechanism and invited us to join a nearby wedding ceremony. Later in life, my late brother, Peter Smith and his wife Susan joined the Amish church, and since then we have been involved with many Amish functions including three more weddings. Now, in addition to being experts on Amish weddings, we can claim that we are great uncles and aunts to 23 Amish nieces and nephews, a number that far exceeds the other side of the family.
We have learned that there is two key concepts that help us understand Amish practices. The first is their rejection of Hochmut, or pride and arrogance. Conversely, the Amish place a very high value on Demut, or humility, calmness, composure, and placidity. Demut is also seen as a kind of "submission" or "letting-be" and the reluctance to be forward, to be self-promoting, or to assert oneself. The idea explains the Amish willingness to submit to the "Will of Jesus", expressed through group norms and at odds with rugged individualism so central to our norms in the wider American culture.
From these principles, we can understand the Amish affinity for simple living, plain dress, and their reluctance to adopt many of the conveniences of modern technology. Their anti-individualist orientation is part of their motive for rejecting laborsaving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Put another way, many of their labor-intensive work projects—a barn raising comes to mind—require family and community teamwork and cooperation. At an Amish wedding, for example, which often is as large as 400-500 people and over a day long, an army of women and girls insure that their high volume and very good food operation that runs flawlessly.
The Amish consider modern innovations—like electricity and electronics, tractors and automobiles—as a means to spark self-absorption with material goods. The belief spreads into the area of art as well: items such as personal photographs can accentuate individuality and call attention to one's self. Hence they are prohibited from the home. Moreover, the Amish believe that photographs in which they can be recognized violate the Biblical commandment, "Thou shall not make unto thyself a graven image." They want to be remembered by the lives they lived and the examples they left, not by physical appearance.
Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbors and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family. They believe large families are a blessing from God. Because of family size and the fact that 90% of young Amish become baptized into the church, the Amish population in the United States increased by 120%, to roughly 300,000 persons in communities in seven states (and Canada) between 1992 and 2013. In contrast, the US population increased by only 23%. Given these increases, perhaps, in time, we will all be Amish. Vermont does not have any Amish communities, but Maine has three. Perhaps, sometime soon, we will see an Amish community spring up in Vermont. They would be right at home in our state that values its rural landscape, hard work and local community.
Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 16 and 25. Baptism is a requirement for marriage, and once a person has affiliated with the church, he or she may marry only within the faith. Church districts average between 20 and 40 families, and worship services are held every other Sunday in a member's home or in a central meetinghouse. A bishop, several ministers, and deacons lead the district. All the leaders are men. The rules of the church must be observed by every member and covers most aspects of day-to-day living like dress standards, religious codes, and how to use or not use technology.
Most Amish do not buy commercial insurance or participate in Social Security. Instead they depend on the community to take care of their own in the case of health, education and aging issues. They also practice nonresistance and will not perform any type of military service. They pay their fair share of taxes, while working with the “English” (their word for non-Amish people) legislators to create laws that protect their interest. For example, the Amish are exempt, by law, from Social Security taxes and military service.
Marijke and I could not emulate some of Amish practices. We could never adopt the restrictive roles that men, women, and children are put in and the limiting nature of Amish education that stops with the 8th grade. We cannot accept their intolerance of Gay and Lesbians rights which appears to contradict their warmth and openness to outsiders like us. The Amish emphasis on large families, so essential to their community life and economy, would be unworkable in the larger culture having dire environmental consequences, even if we all lived simple material lives like the Amish.
Yet, we find their emphasis on simplicity and humility to be essential lessons in light of the enormous emphases on competitiveness and material consumption that exist in modern American society. We are inspired by the fact that the Amish derive spiritual and personal satisfaction from their community, teamwork, and being close to the land and animals.
Equally profound for us is the Amish way of finding happiness with what you have and with others, while putting aside wanting what you cannot get. When we are in an Amish community, we feel a calm engagement with very little need to impress. Absorbed by the Amish people around us, we find joy in simply being accepted while accepting. We are part of the community, while not trying at all to be so.
We feel that what we have and whom we are is good enough and, as we realize this, the happier we are. In the end, as the Amish would remind us, we are all naked together in the eyes of God, so we might as well enjoy the simple pleasures in life—fresh corn, rhubarb pie, Marijke’s gazpacho soup with all it’s ingredients from last summer's garden. Today our snow covered meadow was busy with neighbor skiers gliding by and the best part was when we joined them in the warming winter sun the cold crisp air. The woods were alive with light, every imaginable shape in colors ranging from brilliant white, grays and blacks. And the joy of feeling exerted muscle, heart and lungs and the site of our happy dog Elsa.
Often at Windekind we are amongst people, animals, and a landscape that we have known and loved. And we feel that love coming back in return.
"Kindness, when given away, keeps coming back."