I’m sitting in my Jackson, Missouri hotel room after a nine hour day of driving, en route to Austin after a month away. All those hours in a car give me a lot of time to analyze (and sometimes over-analyze) things in my life. What was on my mind today was a conversation I had last week. I’ve spent the past month working from my parents’ idyllic rural lake house in Wisconsin. When I say rural, I really do mean rural. Unbeknownst to them, when they built their retirement home on the water, they were building in a village that is surrounded by Amish farms. They love this. I love this. In fact, everyone who visits them loves this. We go to the Amish bakery for baked goods, we shop for produce at the Amish farms, we pick our own flowers for ten cents a stem from yet another Amish farm, we buy the most delicious toffee in the world from an Amish candy maker, and we slow down when driving to pass Amish buggies that are sharing the same road as us.
Last week I went to the Amish furniture store to search out a gift for the man who has been tending to my vegetable garden while I’ve been away. The store sells furniture and other items that are hand made by Amish people in the area. When I walked in, the owner of this Amish store, Levi, smiled and said hello. When Levi smiled, he sparkled. His smile was as bright as they get and his eyes had that happy, content twinkle about them. He had a traditional Amish beard that was neatly trimmed and had no mustache. He was dressed in habitual Amish work clothing of dark pants, a white shirt and suspenders. When he spoke, he had a distinct Pennsylvania Dutch accent. So of course…I presumed he was Amish. What confused me, however, is that while we were talking he was jingling a set of car keys in his right hand. When I mentioned I love to road trip and that I had driven to Wisconsin from Texas, he said that he thought about road tripping when he went to Florida last year, but ultimately decided to fly instead.
Knowing that the Amish in this part of Wisconsin only drive horse and buggies and don’t drive cars, my response was a dumbfounded, “But how can you drive?”
Levi responded very matter-of-factly, saying, “My God doesn’t say I can’t drive.” Then, pointing to the Amish farm down the road, “Their God says they can’t drive.”
It turns out that Levi, who is now 48, left the Amish faith at the age of 40. He told me that he realized he had more to explore and learn in life. He wanted to drive a car. He wanted to go see touristy things in Florida. He wanted electricity. He wanted to experience a life beyond the restrictive rules that had defined his first 40 years. Curiously, he hasn’t left his community. He said that he believes his path is to explore not being Amish by continuing to live amongst his former Amish friends and family. He said that as far as they are all concerned, he is now going to hell. It doesn’t matter that he leads an honest and decent life, they all believe that because he left the faith, he is going to hell.
When I returned to my parents’ house, this ignited a conversation about how my mother converted from her faith of Catholicism to my father’s faith of Lutheranism so that our family would all be of the same faith. My maternal grandmother, a very loving woman, but also a very strict Catholic, adamantly believed that because my mom converted, she would go to hell. Grandma believed this because this is what she had been taught in the church. Yet the idea that my mother will be going to hell is utterly and completely ridiculous. My mom has always been very involved with her church, and to this day she still volunteers with the church. She has some of the highest morals and one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever met. Really, how could someone as honorable as my mom be damned to hell? It doesn’t make sense.
So of course, all this talk of hell this past week had me thinking in the car today about what hell really is. We live in fear of going to a dark underground purgatory when we die that is filled with flames, heat and an evil pitch-fork wielding devil. We are taught that if we don’t play by the rules of our respective religions, that we will suffer torture and punishment for all of eternity in a place called hell.
If there really is a God, I don’t believe for one minute that he’d punish us for converting from the faith into which we are born. Life is about learning, exploring, growing, and about becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can be.
The only hell I believe in is the self-imposed hell that we live in when we live inauthentic lives. Until recently, I lived in this hell for most of my adult life. I was afraid of living a life where I could celebrate my uniqueness and where I could live without apology for being different than others. I didn’t think it was possible, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I lived a life that I felt I was expected to live. As a result, an itty-bitty part of me was dead inside. And each day, this itty-bitty part grew larger, so more and more of me was dead inside.
Now that is hell.
It was only when I finally worked up the courage to live a life unique to me without apology, that the parts that were dead inside began to come back to life. That’s when I finally fought my way out of hell and learned what living is all about. It’s hard, and each day I’m tempted to conform and live the way I used to be, because quite frankly, it’s easier. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of work, each and every day, to keep myself out of hell.
So Levi and Mom, quite simply put, neither of you are going to hell. And I’m not going to hell either, as long as I continue to live a life authentic to me.