Much is being made of the loneliness epidemic facing our society. Many people from all walks of life admit to feeling isolated or alone. Recently I was asked what we can learn about combating loneliness from Hutterites. Hutterite colonies have been characterized as Blue-Zone communities in particular because its members are very socially connected. A Blue Zone community is “one where citizens, schools, employers, businesses and community leaders have come together to optimize each others longevity and well-being.” (Blue Zone communities were first identified by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner during his 8-year odyssey to examine communities across the globe where people are happiest and live the longest.) Hutterites have just celebrated their centennial in Canada. Like their spiritual cousins, the Amish and the Mennonites, Hutterites broke away from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation and endured centuries of persecution before fleeing to North America. What is unique about Hutterites is that they live communally; 45,000 Hutterites live in 450 colonies on the Canadian prairies and B.C. Unlike the Amish, Hutterites embrace modern technology and are extremely entrepreneurial. And while they don’t check off all the Blue-Zone community boxes, Hutterites offer important lessons.
“Lonely? I’d like to be lonely once in a while,” quips Jacob Wollman when I call his home on a nearby Hutterite colony. “I don’t know nothin’ about loneliness,” he adds, confounded by my question, “but here’s my wife, maybe she knows something.”
“Being lonely is not a problem around here,” Jacob’s wife Sarah tells me. “We work together, we eat together, we butcher chickens together and we celebrate together. And of course, we also suffer together. If someone dies, or is sick or let’s say, suffering from depression, we try to help that person. But for myself, if I’m lonely I just go next door.”
Growing up on a Hutterite Colony I never knew loneliness until my family left the colony. As a young child, I was nourished on good food and stories in the Klanaschuel (kindergarten). Our Klanaschuel Ankelen (kindergarten grandmothers) would have us sit in a circle around their knees while they crafted oral narratives that held us spellbound. It made us feel part of something greater than ourselves. As I grew older, I tagged along with my mother who was part of the women’s caucus. When the bell rang the women all came together whether to peel potatoes, bake buns or make jam. We were bound to a society that needed to get along in order to survive and like it or not had to find ways to adapt to the failings of others. Every colony had an eclectic cast; the taskmasters, storytellers, comedians and simpletons all brought something of value to the community. Regardless of age or capacity, each one had a station to fill and meaningful work to do. No one received a salary but every member’s needs were met from the cradle to the grave. For better or worse, everyone knew each others business. Sharing the latest woes, gossip and opinions were all part of the mix.
(Nit mah dos du fuh heint kumst ) “ Don’t act is if you invented yourself” is a phrase I heard very often on the Hutterite Colony. It was important to the older generation that young people understood on whose shoulders they stood and to whom they owed respect. A strong sense of history is the thread that held community members together. Those bonds were fostered through rituals and traditions that go back 500 years.
When I first released my memoir, I Am Hutterite, about growing up on a Hutterite Colony and the difficult aftermath of adjusting to mainstream society, the public reaction was largely a sense of envy at how I grew up. Leaving our community and adapting to life in the outside world was not easy. And it was very lonely for all of us, not in the least because we missed the connections and ties, we had with members of the community. The obsession that mainstream society had with popular culture seemed surreal. They lived outside in and we lived inside out which is to say we were more inclined to regard our own feelings rather than conform to societal pressures.
“Could you go back?” my readers wanted to know. I hadn’t thought of that, especially since I had not lived on a Hutterite Colony for over 40 years. But eventually I took up the challenge and for 2 years I returned to my Hutterite roots and communal life, to experience what might have been. I still speak Hutterisch fluently, and I dove right in dressing in traditional clothes and a Tiechel headscarf. When it came to the work, I was no match for the ladies who had many laughs at my expense, but the book that came out of that experience, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, won a gold medal. So, I feel somewhat vindicated. I will always cherish the experience and what it taught me. I revelled in the warmth of the earth as we gardened, the wet smell of feathers in the butcher shop and the scent of wax on the polished church floors. But most of all I enjoyed the camaraderie. And I can verify what Jacob and Sarah told me; being lonely is not a problem on a Hutterite Colony. Sometimes you’d like to be lonely.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her national best-selling books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available in stores across Canada and online at www.polkadotpress.ca.
Contact Mary-Ann at email@example.com or on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite
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