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Understanding the Amish

Updated on April 3, 2014

Have you ever wished that you could travel back in time? Maybe you have considered traveling to a certain historical moment or period. I have imagined attending an original Shakespeare performance in The Globe Theatre in London, England and also of living during any historical period that involved wearing huge hoop skirts and carrying a parasol. Maybe you have imagined being a pirate and burying a treasure chest or what it might feel like to call out “Ahoy there Matey”.

Sometimes traveling and meeting people from other cultures can provide an experience similar to that of time travel. When I first visited a small town on the West Coast of Ireland in the early 1990’s many people there still didn’t have telephones in their homes and everyone knew each other’s name; life was simpler. This way of life is just as I had imagined things to be here in the U.S. before we were inundated with technology and became so fond of anonymity. Yet there is an even more extreme possibility of experiencing time travel and that is to consider the life that Amish people live today.


Amish people make the choice to live a simpler life and have maintained many of the per-industrial ways of living that were common to most Americans, perhaps 100 years ago. Every year approximately 11 million people visit the Pennsylvania Dutch Amish of Lancaster County, the oldest Amish settlement, for their own chance to step back in time without inventing an actual time machine.

What is this fascination about?

Do tourists really walk away with an understanding of the lifestyle choices Amish people make?

The Amish do not use cars, they travel in buggies. They do not have telephones in their homes or televisions and their children complete their education at eighth grade. These and other stark differences to the typical American lifestyle offer more than a huge departure from the American way of life; it is a lifestyle that exists in opposition. Tourists and those curious about the Amish way of life often get stuck on these kinds of choices as they do not meet with the American value system and simply shake their heads in disgust and disbelief. They fail to understand the Amish motivation and find it nearly impossible to look any deeper. For example, just this evening after telling my teenage daughter that Amish people do not adhere to daylight savings time she shook her head and said “that is just weird.”

There have to be reasons; there has to be a purpose to the choices that these people make and of course there is, but these reasons and purposes fly into the face of Western values making them extremely difficult to comprehend.

If for one moment we could step out of our shoes and imagine different goals for living, goals other than financial success, individual achievement and privacy and replace those with the goal of having enough for all, a supportive community and the feeling of belonging, we would have a more accurate picture of what the Amish aspire to. They feel that together, as a group, they can do far better than a society that glorifies only a few individuals. The goal is community strength, each member works towards this, doing their individual best to support their family unit and their community.


When family comes first, televisions and telephones only become interruptions. When community strength is a goal, the ownership of cars would work against this since it would allow the Amish to travel far from the heart of the community. Working at home, such as on a farm or as a carpenter, means that the family is most often together. This is the complete opposite vision of the picture that is painted for most modern Western families today where both parents work outside of the home and although claim to put family first, most often see the acquisition of material goods as the ultimate proof of success.

Instead of attempting to stand out, the Amish look to fit in, and make their society the best it can be. While I don’t imagine Americans giving up their cars anytime soon, I think there is a lot that can be learned from a community that focuses on family and mutual support. When I look at a society or culture with values that differ from my own, I seek to learn from them. There is certainly a lot to be learned from the Amish without ever going very far.

© 2012 Tracy Lynn Conway


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