July 25, 2008

The Road Not Taken

Category: News — Ira @ 6:54 pm


“Life is the sum of all your choices.”

—Albert Camus

It’s a small group, in the big scheme of things. Not small as in elite, but small because there just aren’t that many of us out there. There is no gray area. Either you’re in the group, or you’re not.

The ex-Amish. And by that I don’t mean those who left and now remain with some sort of plain Beachy or Mennonite church. I mean those who, for their own reasons, have shed every vestige of plainness. The ones who, when you meet them, exude not a single clue of their background through dress, actions or speech. Completely “English.” The ones out in the “world,” who provide an endless supply of dramatic fodder for fiery Amish sermons.

For them, the Amish culture that birthed them is the road not taken.

A tremendously diverse group, almost all ex-Amish I’ve ever met express varying degrees of relief for the choices they’ve made. I can’t recall a single one who lamented the fact the he had left the Amish. Although many such stories were recounted in sermons I heard as a wide-eyed child. As dire warnings to any who might ever consider such an evil choice.

The sermon stories were all pretty much the same:

The old man stroked his short gray beard and his hand trembled as he reached into his pocket and withdrew a faded blue bandanna. His troubled gaze settled in the distance, far beyond the earnest young man standing before him. He blew his nose loudly. Then a tear trickled down his weathered cheeks. And another. He cleared his throat, unsure of his words.

“I’d like to return,” he finally said slowly, solemnly. “But you see, I can’t. Because of my family. My children have not stayed in the plain Beachy church I joined. Most are now in liberal churches and look and dress like the world. And why would they heed my warnings? I left the Amish church.”

The old man burst into tears. Great sobs wracked his body. “Oh, that I had never left,” he cried. “But now it’s too late. It’s a one-way street. I can never go back.”

The young man was shocked. This was not what he’d expected to hear. After a moment, he somberly thanked the old man. He untied his horse, got onto his buggy, and rattled off. He was very glad he’d asked for advice. He resolved not to make the same mistake. He would stay Amish. And be thankful and content.

I’ve often wondered if the stories were actually true or if the preachers just fabricated them. Who knows? They seem a little corny. The stories, that is. Not the preachers. Except for a few, maybe.

The great majority of ex-Amish are men, although an increasing number are women. It is substantially more difficult for a woman to leave than it is for men. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to make a living in “English” society.

The ex-Amish exist in every walk of life. Most work in the trades; builders, craftsmen. A few pursue education and professional lives. The one quality almost universally shared among them is the ability to work hard long hours, to forge ahead on their own, to expect no handouts.

It’s a tough road, to break away. Takes an enormous amount of discipline, determin-ation, inner strength and old fashioned grit. Very few actually get it done. Most don’t really want to, deep down. And don’t. They “settle down” or maybe move on to a more progressive church, where the foundational doctrines remain the same. Along with some plainness, a few shades less than the actual thing. Something to cling to from their past. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The ones who left chose to. They didn’t “escape.” They didn’t “flee.” Although some love to use those terms, I think they’re overly dramatic. They left. Broke away. Now they are where they are. And that’s it.

All are scarred, to some degree, by their experiences. All have stories. Of hardships. Abuse. Condemnation. Estrangement. Shunning.

They have stories of the good things too, such as they were. Of family, growing up and laboring in the fields. Of home, of mother’s cooking, of reading by lantern light in the cold winter nights.

Almost universally, those who left talk openly about their backgrounds and their jour-neys. The experiences that define them. Some are hostile, wounded and bitter. A few never really move on. Or get over it. They claim to, but they don’t.

Lancaster County has a few such ex-Amish. One, about my age, writes angry vicious letters to the editor upon occasion, criticizing all things Amish. Including their response to the 2006 school shootings. For thanking the cops for responding. How whacked is that? (He has a blog, but I won’t bother with a link. It gets few hits and fewer com-ments.) It’s gotten so that no one pays him much attention. And that’s kind of sad, because he does have valid perspectives. His bitterness overwhelms anything con-structive he might have to say.

Some write books. Tell-alls. Take whacks at the culture. And all the evil things. A few years back, a young Midwestern ex-Amish lady wrote such a book. Not particularly well written, it flared up, caused a little stir, then died. Guess the market’s a bit limited for such things.

Some are silent. Some are just laid back, content to live and let live.

In central Missouri, south of Clark, there is an ex-Amish reunion every summer. By authentic hard core ex-Amish. Attended by hundreds. My nephews from Iowa have attended frequently. Someday, I’d like to as well.

Whatever the personal experiences, some sort of bond remains, some sort of con-nection, between each such individual and his background. And among all ex-Amish to each other.

My point in all this? In a sense, just musings. In another, well, it bothers me at times when I hear virulent criticism of the Amish from those who emerged from the culture and then left it behind.

The Amish have their faults, heaven knows. I’m not blindly defending all they are or have been. I try to be honest in writing about my own experiences, many of which were very negative. But I deeply believe they have the right to exist as they do, to worship and live as they see fit. Even if it makes little sense to me, who’s been there, and no sense at all to most outsiders.

That’s not the point. Their “freedom to be” is.

It’s easy to blast their weaknesses. To emphasize their inconsistencies. To mock their old fashioned ideals. Their so 18th-century lifestyle. Their patriarchal family structures. Especially for those who’ve felt the sting of the lash and brutal rejection for not con-forming, not fitting in.

The Amish teach, subtly or blatantly, that those who are born Amish and leave will burn in hell. Fear of eternal damnation is a powerful, debilitating thing. I know the mental stress involved. I struggled with it for years.

A lot of ex-Amish still do. Many live in hopeless despair. Because they crossed that line, they figure, there are no more lines to cross. They live hard wild desperate lives.

My heart goes out to them. I want to grab them and shake them. Shout the truth. Being Amish will not cause you to be saved. Or lost (as many who leave and move on to more progressive churches piously like to claim, which is a subject for a future blog).

In my mid-twenties, I realized that one’s acceptance of and relationship with Christ is the only factor to salvation. And once I grasped and claimed that amazingly simple concept, I left. I have never looked back. (That’s about as much preaching as you’re ever going to read from me.)

Like most who leave, I harbored deep resentment toward the culture that had entrap-ped me so cruelly and senselessly for so many years. I wanted nothing to do with anything Amish. I scorned the culture and all it represented.

But something strange happened as the years passed. As I grew a bit older. I mellow-ed. Began to see the positive aspects of the culture. To realize there was a lot of value in the ancient traditions they clung to so tenaciously. Over time, my mellowness turned to acceptance. Then developed into quiet respect.

And that’s where I am today. A place of rest. Acceptance. Respect.

If I hear something silly or foolish that some Amishman said or did, I let it pass. Can’t judge a group by one person. Like I wouldn’t judge all Methodists because of some-thing silly or foolish a Methodist said or did.

I’m quick to rise to the defense of all things religiously or culturally Amish. Especially from outside criticism. It’s like your extended family. You can criticize your own family members, but by George, an outsider had better not.

The culture has it dark aspects. Most notably abuse in many forms. Including sexual abuse. A closed society whose secrets remain locked up. But great strides have been made in the last decade to deal with it. Counseling centers are sprouting in the larger communities to give help and hope to those who struggle from such issues in their pasts. For both perpetrators and victims. There’s one right here in Lancaster County, not a half mile from my house.

For a lot of ex-Amish, it’s not enough. Nothing good can come from Nazareth. The negatives must be highlighted and pounded until the culture changes to their liking. To how they think it should be. Which means the critics will be pounding for a long, long time. Because the Amish won’t change just to satisfy critics.

The Amish are who they are and I accept them as such. I’ve developed deep friend-ships with a few. I enjoy hanging out with them.

I have no regrets for the road I chose. I would never dream of returning. I alone am responsible for my choices.

I rarely wonder how life would have been on the road not taken.

He hasn’t commented in awhile. A few months at least. I’d wondered if maybe he’d quit reading my blogs. Uncle Jess, later known as Happy Grandpa Jess (after the birth of his first grandchild), seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. So I was relieved last week to hear that indeed my older brother is still alive and kicking. He’s been quiet because he’s been plotting his own blog. He launched it recently under the bold and rather audacious title of Wagler Wisdom.com.

So check it out. He has much wisdom and old fashioned advice to dispense. Leave a comment. Tell him I sent you.

I finally figured it out. From that old 1983 picture posted on last week’s blog. Why I was wearing a lined denim vest on such an obviously hot summer day. It’s because I wanted to hide my galluses and look as “English” as possible. Even back then. But the black hat kind of defeated that purpose. Either the galluses OR the black hat would have been OK. But combined, they were unbearable.

Tuesday’s front page headlines blazed the news. Levi Stoltzfoos (see June 27th blog) was sentenced to three consecutive prison terms for a possible total of up to fifteen years . The judge lectured him piously from the bench. I was so upset I had trouble sleeping that night. And so our country continues its downward spiral into lawlessness and the heavy-handed persecution and destruction of innocent lives.

Revolution slouches toward Gomorrah.

Ira at a local firing range.



  1. Picture at the firing range looks great! Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to shoot a friend’s fully automatic machine gun, wow what a rush! By the way, it was a legally obtained gun.

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — July 25, 2008 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Well said. I don’t think I could have said it better myself. Having chosen to leave with my young and growing family 15 some years ago, I look back with no regrets at all the experiences we have gone through. There is no turning back and I wouldn’t want to turn back if that were even an option.

    Comment by Lester Graber — July 25, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

  3. Are you getting ready for burglars at your business? (picture) I’m guessing their fate would be as one “would be robber’s” was this week at a local store….

    Enjoyed the article on leaving the Amish..I know some fine Christian Amish in this community and other Amish communities, so it always bothers me when I hear people declare the reason they left was for spiritual reasons only..It didn’t take our children long to make the comment, “these people are just like the Amish, the lines are just in a different place!”

    Comment by Wilma Wagler — July 25, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  4. Very well stated. Great writing on a subject only understood by those who have chosen the alternate route with understanding there will be consequences. Over the last 25 years there were many opportunities for bitterness, deep rooted bitteness to the core of my very being. By God’s grace I was able to forgive as Christ has forgiven me, the gift of life eternal by believing. When we only see the negatives we will become as that which has our focus and repeat the cyle with the only difference being it is done behind a gas burning power instead of real horse power.

    Comment by John Yoder — July 25, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

  5. Interesting picture of you and that AK. Please a few things. One, EARS. I do not see hearing protection in place. My apologies if you had in the ear protection. Everyone, when shooting for practice, please wear hearing protection. Two, EYES. Eye protection really helps. If you are shooting imported and / or military surplus ammo in that AK, there is a danger of a case head separation and a lot of debris and hot gas blowing into your face when that breach unlocks. Three, HIP SHOOTING LOOKS COOL BUT IS NOT GOOD FORM. You will shoot under stress the way that you practice. With open sights, you want that rifle on your shoulder and your eye sharply focused on that front sight. When I shoot handguns with magazines or revolvers with moon clips, I try to drop them on the ground then pick up so I do not ingrain the habit of taking time to put them in my pocket or magazine holster, slowing my reload. The problem with hip shooting is that you do not really know where that round is going because your eye is so far from the bore line. Shooting AKs is fun. I had two different SKS, the AK-47 predecessor, and those were a hoot. I do not have autoloading rifles anymore because I am cheap. The thought of machine gunning a 30 round clip in less than 30 seconds and watching $15.00 in previously loaded, now not reloadable brass on the ground, was too much. I also lean towards one shot is all you need rather than spray and pray.

    A general question to all out there about ex-Amish. Ira mentions that most ex-Amish men work in the skilled trades but that some seek higher education and professional jobs. Ira is an attorney. I once saw an interview of an ex-Amish PHD psychologist who lives in Chicago. The late John Hostettler had a PHD in sociology and taught at the university level.

    However, I have never heard of an ex-Amish man or woman who is an engineer or scientist. Do I need enlightened? If there aren’t any out there, is there a reason? Is the lack of heavy math, science fiction reading and demonization of high technology during the Amish young person’s preteen and teenage years an explanation?

    I know Amish who have graphical minds. Rhoda Yutzy, Ira’s sister, has a graphical mind. Her expression of it is in painting but her mind could also be used towards architecture and engineering. Norman and Nathan Miller of Evart, MI have stunning graphical minds and US Patents to prove it. I have an extreme graphical mind. This is why I not only make my living as an engineer but actually enjoy going to work every day. I see how mechanisms and systems must work in my mind, often times either in the shower or in the twilight of morning waking. This is why Jean has been surprised by me coming out of shower with minimum modesty and asking for paper and pen to write down the idea of an invention.

    2/3% of Americans are graduate engineers (2 million). With maybe 250,000 Amish, there should be about 1,600 engineers and more than that as technicians.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — July 25, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  6. In response to Mark’s query about engineering – I would speculate it’s the lack of heavy math as it relates to space and spatial matters- although I have seen my uncle whip lowly Power Point presentations into elaborate building plans. Also the heavy cultural emphasis on doing rather than thinking/being. The schooling may also be problematic – many of us visual folks are not traditional learners, (yes some of those theories are bunk) the public/private school systems can barely educate us so I’m not sure what an Amish school could do.

    My mom left the Amish church in the 1960’s as did all of her siblings. Some of them started out as Beachy at Weavertown (my uncle is buried there – Sonny Beiler) but then moved on to a more liberal evangelical Pentecostal church – and then the real drama began. Despite the last name, my father’s family has not been Mennonite for nearly 100 years.

    Comment by Glo Mast — July 26, 2008 @ 7:39 am

  7. Very thoughtful post, Ira. I really appreciate your “live, and let live” attitude – it’s obviously sincere and comes from the heart. Hard won, too. Would that others could be that way. I am slowly reaching it (like you say, growing older helps).

    Comment by pilgrimhen — July 26, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  8. I remember one of our local Amish preachers telling a riveting story about an Amish youth who struggled with the Amish way. The story would go on for awhile, and would inevitably end with a dramatic, “Un heit, [pause] iss ehr dras in di velt” (And today, he is out in the world.) Another man “hut vella zurick kumma; ess wa zu shpot; eh’t dot kokt un hot k’heilt” (He wanted to come back, but it was too late. He sat there and cried.)

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — July 26, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

  9. “These are my people, this is where I come from…” And you know I’m bona-fide if I’m still quoting country songs!

    The Levi Stolztfoos witch-hunt is flat out nauseating.

    We enjoy your site, especially from the far West.

    Comment by Lil and Dave — July 28, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  10. From another discussion group comes this quote from someone who took a giant leap away from a very conservative church background: “It’s important to be as aware of what you have lost as it is to be aware of what you have gained.” He went on to say that this is perhaps the best way to insure that people don’t simply transition from being one kind of reactionary radical to another. I liked this thoughtful perspective.

    Comment by Miriam Iwashige — July 29, 2008 @ 9:05 am

  11. I enjoy your blogs, Ira. You think a lot like I do, but I’m still on this side of the fence. I am not ex-Amish, or an engineer. However, I am still Amish and I was a draftsman for a few years. I still do blueprints for contractors on occasion, using CAD programs.

    I believe that the reason more Amish don’t take up engineering is because it is a fairly boring, yet very tasking occupation.

    Comment by J. Yoder — July 29, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  12. J.Yoder, engineering boring? Ask my husband! He said “It is not boring at my level of work”. Yes, once in a while it was mind-numbing process but overall not boring.

    I’d say most of it because these “Amish” type of people just don’t have a chance to develope their pointenials early. As for me, the later it gets, the less you want to explore whatever. I sometimes wondered if I was GIVEN an opportunity for more education and/or training (like about age 18) that where would I be today. Asst. veterinarian? Nurse, specializing in home care and/or asst. midwife? Somewhere has to do with forestry and wildlife? I joined horse and buggy group the same year I graduated. I got out 8 years later. It is not easy trying to plow my way with no fancy education papers and trainings. I’m so blessed to have Mark. I’m now slowly filling in education gaps currently with Master Gardener and photography. When our children are older, I may take more classes! I have already in past two years. I love the challenge but need the opportunity to present itself. There aren’t many of such within “Amish” groups in my opinion. The older you gets, the more set you are in your way.

    Comment by Jean Hersch — July 30, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  13. I grew up conservative Mennonite and chose to leave in my late teens. I appreciate the approach you took to this subject.

    When I was 14 my grandfather who was also a preacher sat me down and told me about his niece who “acted like you” and look at her now. I looked at her and that was exactly where I wanted to be.

    Comment by A. King — August 6, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  14. Move over Rambo! Wagler’s on the loose!

    It’s funny, how in time, a once despised foe is forgiven and even thought of with tenderness. I’m speaking of your Amish background and my Catholic background. The same thing that you experienced, I did as well.

    For me, the acceptance and eventual respect of Catholicism came about when the power of their lies no longer had control over me. They weren’t true and I believed they weren’t true. But the prerequisite was getting to know who Jesus was and just how much He loved me. Without that, well there was no net at the bottom of the tightrope. And I believed. Oh, yes I did! Woooo Weeee, yes I did!

    In my travels I’ve met a lot of people trying to shake their pasts. Or straighten out their heads. Same thing in many respects. But some made one miserable mistake- they tried to force it. I’d fall into that trap sometimes, and end up taking two steps back. I was raised with force and fear. You better do this or else… You have to go to church on this day or you’ll go to hell if you don’t. God is angry with you so you better straighten up. Good works-that’s what gets you into Heaven. Suffer, be glum, put out your flame, if you want to be like Jesus, the man of many sorrows. Lies, some half lies. But a lie is a lie even at 50%.

    I’ve had a few dreams about Jesus. Now I’m not saying I should be interviewed by the Pope or anything, just dreams. But I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were from God. Simple reinforcements of what is already written in the Bible. No end of the world business, or who will be the next president, or how many face lifts Joan Rivers has had. No, none of that. In one, Jesus told me a joke. It was funny though I don’t remember it. Drats! In the other He was driving a motorcycle, had a well trimmed brown beard and mustache and smelled like vanilla. His face was kindly and he was slightly balding. He told me to hop on the back of His bike.

    Of course, the dreams had deeper meaning and I can’t go into it in full, but Jesus was, well… normal. Normal looking. Kind. Offering comfort and a way to safe ground. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Jesus liked “Born on the Bayou” by CCR. Except maybe for the part about rolling around with some Cajun queen. He’d undoubtedly expect marriage first.

    So, in making peace with the things that controlled me with fear, I now have new views that are based in love.

    Comment by Francine — August 23, 2013 @ 12:21 am

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