Rumspringa

Rumspringa, as I roughly understand it, is a period in the life of an Amish adolescent during which the rules are relaxed and the adolescents are allowed to explore “English” life: they drink, have sex and do drugs until they decide to go back and be baptized or to leave Amish life altogether.

I first heard of this concept on This American Life. The episode is called “What I Did for Love” and the first act follows Kurt Braunohler, who decided with his girlfriend to go on a 30 day “rumschpringa” from his relationship as the ultimate test.

* * *

As an incurable planner, I have always had law school in the cross hairs. I competed with my undergrad institution in mock trial for four years, worked at the domestic violence center for a semester, and worked for a local judge for a month drafting a budget for a program to help those confronting legal problems pro se. As an incurable planner, I bought How to Get into Top Law Schools by Richard Montauk this summer after I took my LSAT and started planning for the admissions process. As an incurable planner, I was distressed to find that I hadn’t really planned anything. I was distressed to read this:

Going to law school is too often a means of apparently moving forward while still avoiding the self-assessment that is necessary to figure out where you should be headed.

Susan Robinson, Stanford Career Services

I flipped back in my notes to look for self-assessment, only to find none. Where did I get this idea? What did I know about it? Where did I even want to go to law school, with applications due in just a handful of months? What were my criteria? What did I want to do with a law degree?

As this idea has developed over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten considerable flack from students applying to and leaving for law school this fall about even reading this book. My favorite quote: “I’ll tell you How to Get into Top Law Schools. Chapter one: get a good LSAT. Chapter two: have a good GPA. Chapter three: apply.”

Those were not, actually, the first three chapters. The first three chapters were considerably more worrisome. I approached them critically, with the clear understanding that taking time off wasn’t really an option for me, but that I wasn’t going to ignore the uncomfortable, either. I should probably at least peruse them, if only to prove that I wasn’t being willfully ignorant.

I got through them. I wiped the sweat from my brow after chapter three thinking that I had been tested, and passed, and that I would still apply in the fall. And I went on to the fourth chapter, and then the fifth, all the way to the eighteenth. And between reading chapters in the sunshine and at lunch and late at night, life, as it has a tendency to do, continued to unravel. I closed the book at chapter eighteen thinking that I might be acting willfully ignorant.

Becoming a lawyer is an expensive endeavor. Some students rack up more than $200,000 in debt and enter into what is, at its most basic level, indentured servitude after graduation. Being a lawyer is a statistically unsatisfying career. A quick search on Google will reveal studies and support groups who declare that attorneys are more likely than those in other professions to be depressed, to be unhappy with their work, to commit suicide, to develop dependencies on drugs and alcohol…

* * *

The Amish are Anabaptist: they do not believe in baptizing children. Rather, they believe that an adult should actively choose a relationship with God. Undoubtedly, a relationship with God is the ideal for most Amish, and most Amish, as I understand it, return from their rumspringa. But for two years, between childhood and adulthood, they explore English life. They test their faith. Some simply ride in cars; others do drugs and engage in extramarital sex.

* * *

It isn’t easy to admit that I’ve never truly tested my desire to go to law school, but I haven’t. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of waiting to apply to law school. It is entirely possible that, in the next few weeks, I will abandon the idea altogether and send off my applications, maintaining course. But after making abundant phone calls and checklists, the plan is to take my own rumspringa–a year out of order. I am made nauseous by the idea that I may find out that I was wrong about what I wanted from life, that I may disappoint parents and family members who have bragged about how their daughter, niece, grandchild was going to be a lawyer. I am similarly anxious about the short-term judgement of peers and professors, whom I respect. Will I be viewed as a slacker? As non-committal? As unfocused? As scared?

* * *

Leaving the fold must be difficult for the rumspringers. These are people who have lived in a certain way with a rigid set of tenants in a familiar place with people who share their outlook on life. There must be rumspringers who are reluctant to leave that familiarity, and some that worry about the state of their souls, and others within the community who shun the rumspringers for taking too long or going too far. There must be people who thoroughly enjoy their time away, and decide never to return. There must be people who are left reeling, with no bearings, by the idea that they don’t want to go back. And there must be those who return with full assurance that they have been tested, and that they alone have chosen their God.

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