Knowing where you stand

Nov
25
2011
by
Lynne McTaggart
/
0
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On Thanksgiving evening, while pondering all the things I could be grateful for, I and our family watched the first part of a series called ‘Living with the Amish.’

Britain’s Channel 4 had selected six typical British teens to fly over to the US and live among the Ohio Amish for six weeks last summer. The kids were a sociological pick-‘n’-mix: posh Etonian George, spoiled and pampered party-girl Charlotte, trendy Jordan, who was looking forward to spending time among the ‘minimalist’ Amish, sassy Siana, who has three fashion blogs, and James, who’d lived in foster care and hostels ever since his mother had been put away for arson.

 

On Thanksgiving evening, while pondering all the things I could be grateful for, I and our family watched the first part of a series called ‘Living with the Amish.’

Britain’s Channel 4 had selected six typical British teens to fly over to the US and live among the Ohio Amish for six weeks last summer. The kids were a sociological pick-‘n’-mix: posh Etonian George, spoiled and pampered party-girl Charlotte, trendy Jordan, who was looking forward to spending time among the ‘minimalist’ Amish, sassy Siana, who has three fashion blogs, and James, who’d lived in foster care and hostels ever since his mother had been put away for arson.

Shocking transition

Their first stop was a week living with Jonathan and Marietta Hershberger, a young couple yearning for children, who were warmly parental toward the teens.

 

Providing the voiceover, Jonathan chronicles their shocking transition – as they trade in all cellphones, iPods, jewelry, makeup and various piercings for handmade clothing without belts, zippers or buttons, bonnets and braces.

 

The bigger shock came the following morning, when they were woken up at 5 am to start chores – the boys to milk the cows and work the farm with Jonathan, the girls to do the housework, pick the food and preserve it - minus all mod cons. In a later episode, George, the Etonian, is most astonished by how a small community, without benefit of slide rules and modern tools, can put up a barn together inside of four hours.

 

When Jonathan begins introducing them to some of the simple pleasures he enjoys - fishing in the wonder of the outdoors - at first they don’t quite get the point, so used are they to filling the silence with all the noise of modern civilization.

 

Something missing

For Charlotte, the experience proves an incredible shock. Her parents, a respite care worker and chief chef in a gastro pub, with the best of intentions, lavished her with presents: a horse in primary school, a plethora gadgets, a car for her 18th birthday. Her mother even does her nails, with no expectation of any responsibility in return.

 

‘In many ways it was wonderful being looked after so well, but I was increasingly feeling that – even though I didn’t want for anything material – something was missing from my life,’ she says.

 

When she heard about the experiment, she readily applied. ‘The idea of getting back to basics really appealed to me, though I had no idea how much I would change,’ she says.

 

Charlotte had never even washed a dish before, so Marietta had to start from scratch, even explaining how to load a washing machine – and every success was met with a swelling sense of accomplishment and belonging.

 

‘From a very young age, the Amish children do chores,’ Charlotte says. ‘It creates a lovely family bond, and means they work well as a unit and respect each other.’

 

She also found it interesting when all factors like hair, makeup or stylish clothing were removed and she was forced to be accepted for herself – and not how she looked. ‘Instead of rushing to try and kiss you, [Amish men] are interested in getting to know who you are inside.’ Another revelation was that socializing could be more fun with conversation and volleyball, than booze.

 

Perhaps one of the most telling sequences is when the girls are sent to visit an older relative of Marietta’s, who had left the sect – only to decide to return 18 years later. Life out there in the rest of America was exciting, but what the woman mostly missed was the sense of community – that no matter what happened to you, your neighbors would be there, watching your back.

 

Rootless children

Charlotte cried when she had to leave. There was something extremely moving about her insistence, upon returning home, on doing her fair share of chores and cooking, as a possible entryway to real connection with her parents. Gadgets and clothes were no match, she’d realized, for the community she’d experienced with the Amish for six weeks.

 

As for the boys, the most touched by the experience was James, the boy who’d spent time in foster care – and he in turn was the person who’d found ‘a special place’ in Jonathan’s heart. At the end of the week, when the boys were getting haircuts, only James opted for the bowl-cut typical Amish haircut – ‘as a sign of respect’ for all their hosts had given them.

 

What interested me most was not only the ‘mirror held up to ourselves’ aspect of these life-swap programs, but also how genuinely changed the teens were by the experience. Our generation has largely abolished religion and community and replaced them with the X Factor and the internet; small wonder our children experience both a moral vacuum and certain rootlessness.

 

I see this most with our youngest child, who gropes for a sense of meaning and acceptance in an increasingly hostile and purposeless world.

 

Many of the children like Charlotte were after nothing less than an ethical framework and clearly found it in a insular community with strict rules and regulations.

 

There is something to be said for knowing where you stand.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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