Simple spirituality can teach us to say ‘let it go’
BY ANDREW FIALA
I recently attended a conference in Lancaster, Pa., focused on forgiveness and peace. Amish farms dot the countryside and Amish farmers in horse-drawn buggies roam the hills under turning leaves. What a great place to discuss forgiveness and peace.
A guiding idea for the Amish is the concept of Gelassenheit. This German word means “letting things be” or “letting go.” This idea guides the simple and modest life of the Amish, who avoid vanity, pride and the temptations of the modern world.
A recent book on Amish spirituality by Donald Kraybill explains that Amish Gelassenheit is the opposite of the “bold, assertive individualism of mainstream American culture.” The Amish encourage submission, humility and simplicity as well as forgiveness, peace, love and community.
Our bold and assertive individualism may be the root of many of our problems: crime, war, ecological disaster and social dislocation. Mainstream culture does not encourage us to be yielding or to be humble. Nor are we content to go easy in the world. Would you exchange your car for a horse and buggy, your cell phone for a simpler life?
We fill our lives with gadgetry and we charge down the freeway at breakneck speed. We celebrate heroes who impose their will upon the world. We are rarely encouraged to give way, to yield, or to simply let things be. We are too busy asserting ourselves, defending our rights and expressing our outrage.
But a yielding and gentle spirit is the heart of peaceful human relations. Consider forgiveness. To forgive is to give up on resentment, revenge and the right to retaliate. If I forgive you, I let you get away with what you’ve done. I forgo the right to punishment or compensation. Forgiveness leaves the injury behind, lets go of the past and allows the future to unfold anew.
Love is also connected to letting go. Loving human beings relinquish their egos in communion with others. We want those we love to flourish and grow, to become fully themselves. Loving parents guide their children gently, encouraging development with an accepting spirit.
Some may worry that peaceful yielding and loving forgiveness undermine discipline and order. Some still believe that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But peaceful and harmonious communities do not need coercive force. Obedience based upon cruelty is superficial. True moral communities develop when people are patiently persuaded to discover natural affinities and common good.
My contribution at the Lancaster conference was a talk on Taoism. The Chinese philosophers also celebrate the spirit of letting go and letting be. Taoist wisdom encourages us to let things be the way they are. The Taoists emphasize living naturally, spontaneously, without conniving or contriving.
There are huge differences between Amish Christianity and Chinese Taoism. The Amish emulate Jesus and submission to God by saying, “Thy will be done.” The Taoists emphasize finding balance and harmony in nature. They are inspired by natural metaphors, encouraging us, for example, to emulate water, which flows, yields and conforms to the world.
Despite this essential difference, the Taoists and the Amish are similar in advocating retreat from the aggressive world of competitive culture. The Taoists retreated to the mountains of China. The Amish retreated to the hills of Pennsylvania.
Our fast-paced competitive world does not have much room for Gelassenheit. We tamper and tinker, judge and manipulate. We celebrate innovators, entrepreneurs and explorers. The bold individualism of our world is quite different from the quiet agrarian life of the Amish. It is also quite different from the life of the Taoist wanderer, who prefers nothing better than to peacefully fish in a mountain pond.
There is profound wisdom in the slow corners of the world, where letting things go is a way of life. Some of that wisdom should be allowed to influence the contemporary world. Gelassenheit is a concept that ought to enter into our moral vocabulary.
We ought to learn to say, “Thy will be done.” We ought to learn to flow like water. We ought to learn the wisdom of leaving things alone. When people complain about stress — when they are angry, resentful or aggressive — we ought to say to them, Gelassenheit — let it go, leave it be.