Almost every day, I’ve told Moise how remarkable his barn is, how amazing an accomplishment it is, how exciting for me to see his planning and execution come together so flawlessly.
He has never once acknowledged my praise or praised his work in any way, or bragged about how well it has been going, nor has he thanked me for praising him.
In the Amish world, that is considered prideful, an affront to God.
He doesn’t give any sign that he heard me at all. But he did, of course.
This is one of the first lessons I’ve learned from the Amish, and one of the most important.
This is important to me. I do not lead a humble life, even though I value humility. I draw attention to myself for a living.
And I am very slow to forgive.
As his proud new beautiful barn takes shape, I’ve stopped complimenting his work; that kind of praise is an English tradition, sought by leaders, the clergy, businesses, artists and movie stars, writers and actors, students, artists, partners, and working people everywhere.
People have recently asked me what the greatest lesson I am learning from Moise and the Amish I am getting to know. I know the answer.
Moise doesn’t lecture or preach, he simply allows the people and animals, and children around him to learn life’s most important lessons by themselves.
It’s true that he is teaching me the same way he teaches his horses, but like them, this is the best way for me to learn.
The Amish don’t lecture, they teach through example, by the way, they live.
Humility is at the center of Gelassenheit, the heart of Amish morality. Amish clergy frequently cite Peter 5:5: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.
I have always worked to understand what humility means so I can recognize it in myself and others. In most ways it is not natural to me, in some ways, it came effortlessly.
It’s not a simple thing for me.
Humility means not believing that I am better than others. It means honestly evaluating my accomplishments and flaws, not seeking the spotlight, not drawing attention to myself, or bragging about my achievements.
It means being able to forgive.
My work – I’ve worked in newspapers, network television, and published 26 books – has often demanded that I stand out, argue, to fight in a sometimes viciously competitive world.
My publishers and bosses were not looking for humility in their workers.
My life has also required struggle, like most people.
I really didn’t know there is another way for me to have survived. That’s no excuse and I have never accepted the idea that is too late to change.
Humility, I am learning, also means recognizing my strength.
don’t need to bow to the demand or wishes of other people; I need to be honest about myself but not fall into self-hatred or accept the hatred and judgment of others.
Humility does not require me to accept the judgments of other people or their definitions of me.
This idea of humility has helped me to work on forgiving people I am angry with or have been hurt by and also respect myself. That isn’t easy either.
“Truly humble people, ” wrote the VA Institute For character, “think well of themselves and have a good sense of who they are, but they also are aware of their mistakes, gaps in their knowledge, and imperfections.
Most importantly, they are content without being a center of attention or getting praised for their accomplishments.”
This idea and model Moise offered me helped me see that by arguing and responding to people who were angry at me or critical of me, I was really seeking attention and allowing myself to be dominant rather than focus on the ideas I want to explore.
It was too often about me, not about what I was trying to say. That is part of the curse of unfiltered individuality.
“Humble people,” wrote one analyst, “do not distort information or defend and verify their own image, and they do not need to see – or present – themselves as being better than they actually are.”
As human beings, we are not obliged to apologize for who we are or what we have. Humility asks us instead to acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings.
In their extraordinary work on the barn, I’ve never once heard Moise or Eli (the barn-raising foreman) compliment themselves, accept credit for what they have done, or suggest that they are better in any way than anyone working on the barn raising or building other things.
They never boast or seek credit.
Nor do they apologize for mistakes, deny their shortcomings, defend themselves or “verify” their own image.
So this is the line about humility; I am beginning to discover.
Good work and good deeds speak for themselves – even when fund-raising – and I am affirmed in my idea that I am not obliged to argue my beliefs. Humility is what they are, not what they are trying to be.
I’ve never once heard Moise argue his beliefs, even when they are in extreme conflict with outside authorities or critics of the Amish way.
This idea of humility is very new to me and very challenging.
But it is where I want to be and hope to be. I feel my friendship with Moise and the Amish has helped me more than any other thing to understand what humility really means.
The humble never tell other people what to do; that has always been my faith on this blog. Nor do they permit others to tell them what to do.
That’s my sweet spot, right there.
Outside of the Amish community, the people they call the “English” do not celebrate, teach or worship the idea of humility.
Half of the country voted for and adores a political figure who is, whether you like him or not, the very antithesis of humility – he calls attention to himself all the time, lies, brags, and gloats, and proclaims his superiority to others.
His opponents are more subtle and less openly arrogant, but they are far from humble. Humility does not seem to be what American people want in their leaders.
In his book The Amish, Donald Kraybill quotes an Amish leader writing to a man facing censure by the church: “Humble yourself and stoop low enough so that you can forgive others.”
Moise is a human being, a real person, not a theological construct. Like all human beings, he uses signs and symbols to cope with everyday life to make life meaningful and desirable.
Like almost everyone, he asks himself, “what is the meaning of life and existence?” What, he asks, is his mission in the world? I ask the same questions, almost every day. We each recognize that the other is on a mission.
Moise, like every member of the Amish Church, has studied over and over again the biblical story of Creation. This is the Garden of Eden in the Genesis account, with its many plants, animals, birds, symbols, and fishes.
Through the fall of Adam and Eve, all of humanity was tarnished with a disobedient and carnal nature. Redemption is made possible by responding to God’s love.
The Amish believe that they are recipients of an undeserved gift – thus, they live at the epicenter of a never-ending moral drama. There is no guarantee they will get to heaven; there is no absolution, they have to work for it every second.
They must prove worthy, faithful, grateful, and humble, and feeling unworthy is humility at its purest.
God’s gift of life obligates every Amish person to reciprocate by offering a community that echoes the very preaching of Christ: walking in righteousness, sacrificial behavior, obedience, humility, and non-resistance.
Every Amish community must be “without spot and blemish” and exist in a state of “brotherly love and union, a bride for the groom’ that is God.
If there is one consistent evil never tolerated in Amish culture, it is a sin of pride.
Pride, writes Donald Kraybill in The Amish, is a religious label for individualism’s dark and sinister side. Pride, says Amish literature, seeks the exaltation of the self; God “hates a proud look (Proverbs, 6:17.)
Thus Moise must never believe or let himself believe that his skill gathering the materials and planning for his barn puts him above any other Amish person or entitles him to any praise that singles him out from others.
To acknowledge my praise would be an act of pride, not humility.
Moise and the Amish believe that the presentation of the self is especially vulnerable to pride, which is the opposite of humility.
That’s why the Amish don’t wear jewelry, buy their own clothes, hang photos of themselves on the wall, get tattoos, hairstyles, jewelry, cosmetics, or suntans; all of these things enable people to stand out as individuals and seek a kind of attention.
All cosmetic props are considered signs of pride, as are wedding rings and wristwatches, badges, or lettered caps ( or any caps.) Make-up is forbidden, even for the deceased in a casket.
I see this idea of humility clearly and powerfully expressed in how Amish from all over come together to raise barns and houses and help one another in need.
There are no heroes, no leaders, no first responders, no interviews or press conferences.
This is, in fact, a community of perpetual first responders; they all come to the aid of one another without question; no lights, sirens, or any particular kind of recognition.
Pride is also why most Amish do not like photographs taken of them, even though countless thousands of photos circulate.
To some degree, this is because people take them without permission, and the Amish are rarely confrontational or intimidating.
Amish religious leaders have often argued that photographs become expressions of self-admiration and study, making the self an object for admiration and reflection, which encourages a different mindset than the Amish faith itself.
Photos are seen to endanger the Amish idea of humility.
This, of course, put me on a potentially complex path to confrontation with Moise and his family.
I have benefited from the fact that this one rigid moral line is changing. the ethic is changing. Many Amish (Moise, among others) permit outsiders to take pictures of farming, foods, crops or business operations.
I learned that what the Amish really object to is direct (portrait-like) face-to-face pictures, especially if the subject appears to be posing. That would seem self-aggrandizing to them, something that puts one above others.
But if someone (me, for example) is photographed from a distance, the moral burden falls on the photographer, not the family.
I am cautious about the photos I take.
They are either from so great a distance that faces are not recognizable or taken with the people’s permission. I do not ask children for permission to photograph them and never knowingly photograph them up close.
Whenever the Miller family comes by my house, they come to my computer and look at the photos I’ve taken of them. They enjoy seeing images of their work, and of their horses especially.
I believe very strongly in the right of photographers to take whatever photos they want in the public sphere. I respect the request of anyone who asks not to be photographed, whether I like it or not.
None of my Amish pictures are close or portrait-like, or face-to-face. No reader of my blog has ever seen what Mosie actually looks like. This tears me up, I admit, but I will honor it.
I don’t plan to take a close photo of the barn raising. If I do take a photo (the smart money is betting on it), it will be from the road or from deep in the woods.
I understand by now that there is no objection to that.
If I took a photo of Moise face-on and in praise of him, he would be distraught, and our friendship would probably end.
He leaves me room to figure it out.
This is how he views humility, and I suppose it is how I am learning it also. My wishes are not the only ones to be considered. Very often, the right thing is what somebody else wants.
I can’t live as humble life as Moise lives. But humility is precious to me, even though I was never taught it was important or taught it at all, and I have often suffered from arrogant people and bullies.
There is a good-sized chip on my shoulder, I’m delighted that it seems to be shrinking with age.
More than any other entity in my life, Moise and the Amish are showing me what humility really means and showing me how to find and still live a life of dignity, creativity, and meaning.
It is not an easy lesson for me to learn, but the odd thing is that I love learning it. The Amish are good and gentle teachers, they are a lot closer than I am.
“This is the terrible thing about humility,” writes Tomas Merton, “that it is never entirely successful. If it were only possible to be completely humble on this earth.”