“Escape quickly from the company of fools; they’re a waste of your time, a waste of your words. The wisdom of the wise keeps life on track; the foolishness of fools lands them in the ditch. The stupid ridicule right and wrong, but a moral life is a favored life.”
This week I have been thinking a lot about the difference between escapes and exits. I finished Ira Wagler’s book, Growing Up Amish, about his multiple escapes from the Old Order Amish lifestyle in which he was raised. Wagler grew up with 11 siblings in a strict and regimented household. They spoke Pennsylvania Dutch (I didn’t know this was a language. I thought it was a type of pretzel). The Old Order is distinguished from other types of Amish in that it is less progressive. Electricity is not allowed in the home nor are phones. All clothing is homemade. Women wear bonnets. They drive buggies with steel rims, unlike those that permit rubberized tires.
The Amish fascinate us. Mired in technology and modernity, we find their lifestyle quaint and simple and imagine the retreat it would be from the world to drop everything and plow alongside Harrison Ford in Witness or build barns together. But as Wagler writes, being Amish is really hard at times. The strength of the community can be its weakness. “As I would come to discover later in life, one shouldn’t be condemned for simply craving freedom,” he writes.
The Amish preach Anabaptism, an adult choice to be a member of the church. The famed Rumspringa break that is permitted adolescents to experience the world is to provoke a definite choice about an Amish future and usually ends with a return to the fold. Amish children do not go to school beyond 8th grade. Their lives are so deeply enmeshed in a closed society that it is hard to envision oneself apart from it.
Wagler left his home for the first time at 17 in the middle of the night, leaving a brief note for his father to find at dawn. This is a common way of leaving the community. But because it was an escape and not an exit, Wagler never really articulated and owned the reasons he had for leaving. He just left. And then came back. And left and came back. He was engaged to an Amish woman and took church vows but broke the engagement and left again. Now, more than two decades apart from his leave-taking he realized the difference between his escapes and his final exit. He says that when he finally broke off, he “was not running in frantic despair into some wild and dangerous horizon. For the first time, I was leaving with a clear mind, quietly focused on faith, not fear. For the first time, I was leaving behind all the baggage, all the tortured, broken dreams, all the pain of so much loss and heartbreak.”
When we look at the verses from Proverbs above, they, too, speak about escape – leaving those who are fools. The medieval Spanish commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, says that the word escape here means to distance oneself. Understand the risks and move away. Sometimes when we are too close to fire, we get burned. If you know what ignites that fire for you emotionally, then stay far away. Escape.
Rashi, who lived a bit earlier, takes a softer view. He might not translate the word as escape but rather as separate yourself. He contends that Proverbs is advising us not to be around a fool often, not to make him into regular company rather than moving far away. We cannot always distance ourselves physically from forces that constrict or diminish us. But we can make mental and emotional distances to protect our own health and well-being. In Proverbs, those distances are in defense of our moral values. Stay away from what damages your principles and from those who question or ridicule them. When you cannot be apart from bad influences, learn to negotiate how you react to them so that you do not feel compromised.
Running away isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, it’s better to make a slow and dignified exit.