Part Two In A Series: What The Amish Can Teach Us: Patience This series was inspired by the Amish Scholar Donald B. Kraybill, his new book is What The Amish Teach Us. I am indebted to him for his years of scholarship and thoughtfulness. He is perhaps the leading expert on Amish culture in the world.
If you spent any time with Moise or his family, one of the first things that stand out is a quiet, calming, steady patience. They are patient. They never rush, lose their tempers, fear delay, or fill up their heads with obligations and duties that cause stress and confusion.
If one thing stands out and reveals the vast chasm between their culture and ours, it is patience. Patience is at the center of our lives; patience and tolerance have been driven almost entirely out of English society.
In the landmark book The Amish, the authors (there are three, including Kraybill) write about Gelassenheit, the cultural and emotional disposition at the heart of Amish life and culture. Gelassenheit is their universal and all-encompassing philosophy; it means letting go, stopping trying to figure everything out, and letting it alone.
I believe this is one of the things the Amish can teach us.
Gelessanheit is a meek spirit; in a sense, it isn’t about conquest, combination, or success. The culture focus of Gellassenheit blends submission and humility into God’s will, personal meekness, and small-scale and personal organizations.
And patience, always patience.
In brief, says Kraybill, Gelassenheit is the Amish version of “let it be,” stop trying to change things that can’t be changed and accept life for what it is, good and bad. This philosophy is bred into the Amish soul and governs perceptions, emotions, behavior, organizational structure, and even aspects of building and architecture.
It explains everything.
The dimensions of Gelalssenheit include personality (reserved, modest, calm, quiet), values (submission, obedience, humility, simplicity). Symbols (dress, horses, carriages, dialect), structure (small, informal, local, decentralized), and rituals (kneeling, foot-washing, confession, shunning.
At the center of Gellessanheit, one of the most striking traits in the Amish faith is patience, avoidance of conflict, and the quite visible absence of impatience, one of the enduring hallmarks of English life and culture. Moise’s boots have had holes in them for five or six years. He is in no rush to get new ones.
In any friendship, disagreements are inevitable. When Moise and I have a conflict, he stops and suggests it isn’t the right time to work out. He doesn’t care if this takes six months or a year, he doesn’t fight about things, or she has any need to resolve things quickly.
In many ways, Amish life is about being patient and plain in a frantic and frantic world. The Amish say that the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Kraybill writes that patience guides the Amish journey.
I know that patience is an essential part of every Sunday service (I’ve been invited to one.) The services have very slow hymns that go on and on.
Moise’s son John told me that the importance of horses is that they set the pace for life and slow everything down. “We can’t rush, ” he told me. “We have no way of doing it.” Horse rides, he said, are always slow and contemplative.
There is no equivalent of hopping into a car and rushing off to pick something up at the market or hardware store in Amish life, something Maria and I do four or five times a day.
We wait for very little. If we want something, I get onto Amazon or rush off to the supermarket. Patience is not something I am asked to practice often; our society is all about rushing and moving quickly to get things done. Most of the time, we have to think about money, let alone aging and health care.
For the Amish, none of these are problems.
The horses, in a sense, are the enforcers of patience. I often buy things for the Miller family online. They have absolutely no trouble waiting weeks or months for something I would try to get immediately. The Amish are not in a hurry. They ride in open-window, gadget-free buggies so they can see and admire the countryside and wave to friends and neighbors along the way.
Before you harness a big horse and buggy, you have to think about it and set off down a heavily trafficked road. There are no clocks in the Miller house; they don’t set their clocks ahead an hour each spring or back an hour each fall, as the English do. They favor what they call “slow time,” God’s time, regulated by the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of seasons.
This appears antiquated and puzzling to outsiders, but it supports the idea of calm and patience, a simple life lived with thoughtfulness and discernment. Most of the things I rush to do are either not essential and can wait. But I’m not sure I know the difference any longer. Since the Amish need and acquire very few things, that eliminates much of the rushing around that afflicts the English.
Amish people speak openly about their resistance to the breakneck speed of hypermodernity, the intoxicating, reckless acceleration of and acceleration of life in the world outside.
They fiercely resist the pace of English life. They are always patient, slowly making their way through our dangerous world. You never see them hurrying or rushing frantically anywhere. I’ve never seen an Amish person in crisis and drama.
Yesterday, visiting the Amish, Moise and Barbara were laughing about a mishap where one of their children accidentally set her wagon on fire and also set fire to a nearby pile of water, garbage, and rubber. The stench could be smelled for hours and hours.
The calm way they told the story, which would have triggered a massive crisis and drama almost surely involving police, fire companies, and bystanders in many of the places I’ve lived, struck me. They were completely patient with their child.
It was just no big deal. It was just life.
There were no recriminations, lectures, dramatic tales to be told. It was just life, something that happens to children. “She’ll learn from it, ” said Moise after he told the story.
Amish lives are filled with slowdowns – like having no electricity. At dusk, their house is dark, lit only by kerosene candles; there is a calm peacefulness about it. You can’t scramble to do a lot of things in the dark. Being quiet is a natural choice.
There are significant slowdowns – horses, no Internet, no news, no cars.
They get a lot done, but they never seem to worry about getting a lot done. It’s just the way they live. Moise always tells me he can slow down in winter; he can now work at his own pace, which is relentless but never rushed.
The three-hour Amish Church service is another slowdown and a big one. There are no preached fixes for life’s problems in these services; there is no drive-thru there, no instant gospel of prosperity, no sermons, and wisdom.
Amish services are slow and long. Everyone sits quietly, and with enduring patience, the service is an incubator of tolerance.
The idea, wrote Kraybill, is worship that evokes “a medical monastery and reminds the faithful that they are pilgrims plodding through a high-speed world that’s not their final home.”
Amish worship is also meant to be a training ground for children to understand patience and practice it. There are no classes for children during services and no rooms to run off to while the adults pray. For hours, small children sit quietly on wooden benches or in a parent’s lap. Halfway through the service, a small plate of crackers is circulated as a snack for children.
Mostly, they sleep quietly. They are free to occupy themselves with simple toys – small dolls, a handkerchief, or tiny bits of fabric or paper. In church, children learn a message that is at the heart of the Amish faith and identify patience and quiet.
Since they have been immersed in the practice of patience since infancy, they bring this understanding into their entire lives. Long before they are teens, they learn not to rush to the front of the food line, to wait for their turn. Amish children learn by necessity to wait for the bathroom (there is only one in Amish homes); they must wait for a slice of pie or cake or for a chance to talk.
Every day of their lives, they learn the lessons of patient waiting.
Little Sarah desperately needs a boot; hers has a massive hole in the side. Her mother asked me to help find a boot for her, and I know Sarah is very eager to have one. Once, weeks ago, she asked me if I was getting her a boot. I said it was, but it would take time. The Amish don’t just wear any shoes. I just found one for her yesterday.
In that time, she has never once asked me if I had found a boot or when it might arrive. She is patient.
Patience is very much evident in my friendship with Moise. When faced with a problem, his default position is to go quiet, wait, and pray; he doesn’t seek quick or urgent fixes. He won’t argue, attack my position, or defend his.
The world slows. When Moise has a conflict with an inspector or local authority, there is no fight. They might take years to work it out, but they always do.
I’ve come to understand that demanding an immediate solution signals a lack of trust in God. Patience, for the Amish, writes Kraybill, “is an enduring way of respecting each other and thoughtfully pondering options before rushing into judgments.”
Moise and I have been talking about better illumination for the horse buggies ever since we met. We still talk about it from time to time; Moise is still thinking about it. Decisions like that are to be made patiently and thoughtfully.
This patience is in stunning contrast to the way English society works. For the Amish and the Millers, patience is a personal virtue, a social practice, and spiritual teaching. It’s also a way of living that allows time for deliberation and reflection.
Without ever meaning to, Moise taught me to be patient and thoughtful about my new apnea mask. It is not a drama or a crisis; it is just something I have to thoughtfully and patiently work through.
The Millers and my friendship with them are teaching me – I am a notoriously impulsive and impatient person – to slow down. Some of the best things in life – slow and carefully cooked food, emotional healing, peace of mind, forgiveness, love, and self-renewal – don’t come quickly or easily. They require time and patience.
This is something it has taken me a lifetime to learn, and I wonder if the Amish children know it already. They seem very patient and calm to me. There is never any customer service for them to call. They have to figure things out for themselves.
There are many Amish traits and sayings, many signs of Gelessanheit.
One thing that sticks in my mind is the Amish always tell bereaved families when someone they love dies: “I Wish You Patience.”