The Problem with Small Towns


This blog post has been a long time coming, to borrow a small town phrase. Perhaps it was finally pushed into fruition since I spent a few days in my hometown earlier this week while my daughter’s school was closed & my husband was traveling for work.

For those who don’t know anything about me, allow me to preface this with a quick autobiography so you will have a better context for the rest of this post. I grew up in a small town in central Virginia, a place with 4 stoplights in the entire county (there are 5 now since we got a Wal-Mart!). A place with one primary, one elementary, one middle, & one high school for the whole county. A place that- at the time I was growing up there- required you to drive a minimum of 20 mins to get to the closest Wal-Mart. A place with more churches than restaurants. And zero bars. I moved away for college when I was 18, albeit to another small town but it was sufficiently bigger that it felt like a small city to me. Which is probably proof of how rural my early years really were! Anyway, aside from the summer after freshman year of college, I have never lived there again (after college my husband & I moved to an urban area in another state). And that summer was the longest one of my life because I spent most of the time counting down until I could go back to school & get out of there. I can truly say I have never regretted moving away & I’m quite certain I never will.

For a little more context, allow me to add that for the first few years after I left my hometown I was quite angry & bitter toward the town. Because it was all I had known for 18.5 years, it was quite a shock to find out at college that my formative years were quite different than those of many of my peers. It was easy to feel like I’d missed out on a lot in life, to feel like my town had somehow held me back or deprived me of experiences. However, as time has gone by I’ve become a lot more forgiving of my hometown. I actually feel more connected to the town & many people there than I have in a long time. Even so, I’ll never be that person who loves their hometown & thinks it’s the best place on Earth- not even close. But I’m no longer angry & bitter about it. However, I think I’ll always have very conflicted feelings about it. I think it will always be a place that conjures as much sadness for me as it does happiness, as much disappointment as it does pride.

Now to get to the meat of the message- there are so many problems with small towns in the rural South, & I daresay with small towns the world over. Of course there are plenty of problems with more urban areas too- but that isn’t the focus of today’s post. So- what are the problems plaguing my home town & thousands, nay probably millions, of others like it? Well, there’s poverty, racism (some quite overt, some much more veiled but equally sinister), religious extremism, drug use (this one has spiked exponentially over the past few years), closed-mindedness, unemployment, depression & other mental health issues, domestic abuse/violence, cronyism, isolation, & obesity- to name a few.

But the number one problem that I think plagues small towns is a refusal to see the full potential in others, an insistence on categorizing people & making assumptions about them based on said categorizations. This is especially true in adolescence but I’m very sad to say that I think it often extends far beyond high school & into all of adulthood. Now hear me out on this because I realize this may seem like a far smaller problem than the other things I listed above. The reason I say this is the number one problem is because I think it is the root cause- or a root cause anyway- of many of the other problems, including racism. When people feel categorized from such a young age- whether it be as a nerd, a jock, an athlete, a class clown, a goth, etc- this can & often does have a crippling effect on self esteem, ambition, etc. People feel stuck in roles that quite often they didn’t truly choose. All of this can lead to depression & isolation which are hardly good starting points for happiness & success in life. Not to mention there is the pressure people feel to please others or to conform to local societal norms to avoid rejection & humiliation.

To expound on my own experiences, one of the reasons college was so exhilarating for me was because it was the first time in my life I didn’t feel looked down upon for being smart. It was the first time I felt like I could be truly & authentically myself without people immediately categorizing me in a negative way. It was also the first time I felt free to fully explore my own ideas & beliefs about life without people breathing down my neck telling me how wrong or sinful I was to question things. That’s a whole other blog post right there but the point is that being away from my hometown really allowed me to come into my own, so to speak. And it also allowed me to appreciate all kinds of different people, many of which broke the stereotypes that I’d so often seen or heard at home.

I always hear the stereotype that small towns are the friendliest places in the world. I can see why people say that but I think they can be the meanest places too. For example, in a small town, it’s so easy to see someone who uses drugs & just say “Oh, they’re a useless druggie.” You’d think that small towns might have more empathy for these people because “everyone knows everyone” but what I’ve realized is that everyone does NOT know everyone at all. Sure, most people know each other as far as names, relatives, things like that. But that does NOT mean we actually know each other. We often know only the most superficial things about each other but end up assuming we know so much more. Just because someone is or was categorized as a certain thing in school or beyond in no way means we actually know anything about their true personality- their likes, their dislikes, their dreams, their ambitions, etc. And yet so much of the time we are so quick to assume we know everything about everyone just because we’ve all lived in the same area for so long. How do I know this? I know it because I have been guilty of it too. And still am at times.

As far as the drug use issue, such attitudes only serve to further isolate these people & therefore drive them further down the hole of addiction. I am in no way saying they aren’t responsible for their decisions but I do think our world would be a much better place if we spent less time looking down on addicts just to feel better about ourselves & more time understanding WHY people make such unhealthy decisions, & thus tried to address the root causes of addiction. But, again, that’s a whole other blog post right there.

What I’m trying to get at here is this. Agatha Christie said over & over in her books that even the smallest village is a microcosm for the world as a whole because no matter how small a place is the essential nature of human beings doesn’t change. All the good & all the evil that can be accomplished or undertaken in the world can & does happen in the smallest of towns, just as it does in the largest of cities. I started reading her books in high school- actually probably middle school- & even then I knew she was probably right in this assertion. But I hadn’t yet lived anywhere but a small town so I had no experience elsewhere to confirm it. Now I do. And now I know that the reason small towns have the problems I’ve discussed here is because HUMANITY has these problems. And as much as you might think that having a smaller amount of people might somehow lessen those problems, I think it’s actually quite the opposite. I think it only serves to heighten the problems, perhaps because there are fewer people to dilute them, if that makes any sense. What I’m saying is it’s so easy for outsiders to see places like my hometown as these perfect, quaint, peaceful towns but in reality there is so much darkness underneath the surface. But I think that’s because there is so much darkness in human nature as a whole. And just because there are fewer people doesn’t mean there is any less darkness.

Remember how I said I will always have conflicting emotions about my hometown, how it will always elicit as much disappointment as it does pride? Well, the truth of the matter is that the same is true for HUMANITY as a whole. It’s just that I feel so much more strongly about it when it’s associated with the place where I grew up, the place that “should” feel like home but really doesn’t.

So my unsolicited advice to all my friends & family back home or anyone else reading this from a small town (or anywhere really) is this: don’t assume you know folks just because you’ve known them your whole life. Allow people to be more complex than you might have previously pictured. I know the world is scary & confusing- perhaps all the more so since Covid struck- but categorizing people in an attempt to simplify things doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. And remember, I am writing this to myself too.

Just to be clear, I haven’t written all this to point my finger at my hometown & others like it. I have not written all this to say I’m better than anyone there because I moved away. I’ve written all this to try to make sense of a confusing world. To try to find some peace about a place that often causes me such unrest. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. The older I get the less I care what others think because that doesn’t pay my bills or help me sleep at night. If you’re truly happy living there or in another small town somewhere, I am sincerely happy for you- & even a bit jealous if I’m truly being honest. Remember, my gripe here isn’t really specific to small towns- it’s to humanity as a whole. And I know I’m part of that too.

Edit: I’d like to share one of my all time favorite songs. It’s sad & beautiful all at once & while it was clearly written with a person in mind, I feel like it perfectly sums up my relationship with my hometown & with small towns in general. “I love you, but I leave you. I dont want you, but I need you… I’ve got a gypsy soul to blame & I was born for leaving…”

https://youtu.be/oouFE51HcqM

Finding Peace When Times are Hard


There was a shooting in my hometown today (about three hours away from where I now live).  Being a very small town in a very rural area, this isn’t exactly something you expect to read about when scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.  But sadly this isn’t the first time there’s been a shooting in this supposedly peaceful place.  It’s the second hometown shooting I’ve found out about via Facebook just in the past four or five years.  In any case it goes without saying that this is a horrific tragedy that has no doubt affected countless individuals.  It’s ironic to me how so many people have this idea that small towns are inherently safer, more peaceful, and generally more moral than the rest of the world.  I can tell you from personal experience that they are not & that small towns are exactly how Agatha Christie used to describe them in her books: they are a microcosm for the larger world.  All the evil that exists in the world as a whole exists just as strongly in a small town.  It just might not seem quite as apparent if given only a cursory glance.  This isn’t a rant against small towns (even though I’ve long since realized that small town life just isn’t right for me anymore, at least at this stage of my life).  I’m just trying to say that evil is everywhere.  There’s no running from it.  No hiding from it.  However, despite what I often hear, especially at times like this, I don’t believe the world is getting any more evil than it’s ever been.  First of all there is absolutely no scientific way to measure that.  And second of all, I truly believe it’s only due to technology such as TV & the internet that we are more aware of so much of the evil in the world, which of course makes is seem like the world is getting worse & worse.  Perhaps if good news received even half the attention that bad news receives, we wouldn’t be so convinced that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket,” as it were.  But sensationalism sells . . .

times are hard

Anyway, at times like these, I find myself slipping into the cynicism that inevitably rears its ugly head whenever such senseless tragedies occur.  I did not personally know the victim but I interacted with her a handful of times growing up, as she worked in the local school system, & her son was involved in a teen group at my church when we were growing up but I haven’t seen or heard from him in many years.  The alleged perpetrator as I understand it, who at this writing is still at large, was a barber in town for many years & as such was well known in the community (somebody correct me if I’m wrong here).  I believe my dad used to go to his barber shop.    Point being, I don’t have a strong personal connection to this tragedy, but even so it is a shocking event that sends the mind reeling with questions about the uncertainty & unfairness of life.  I like to think of myself as mostly a positive person but I think at heart I am actually a realist.  I cannot help but see reality for exactly what it is most of the time.  For example as a nurse, I cannot help but realize how completely futile the care I provide is at times.  Or when I think about becoming a mom, I cannot help but realize how difficult & tiring of an undertaking that will be.  I often hear women say “Babies are cute but I just had no idea how much work this would be.”  When I hear such things, part of me wants to slap them in the face.  How could you NOT realize how much work a baby will be?  To me it’s just so obvious.  Just as it’s obvious to me that a 90 year old who cannot speak, eat, or care for herself in any way & generally has no quality of life should be a DNR and should not receive a feeding tube to prolong her misery.  But I’ve strayed from the point . . .

What I’m saying is I’m struggling right now to fight my way out of the darkness.  I know there are plenty of wonderful people in the world & I truly believe that good is stronger than evil.  If I didn’t, I don’t think I could keep going.  But when you’re presented with tragedies like this that quite literally hit close to home (the shooting occurred maybe two miles from my parents’ house), it’s easy to lose sight of that.  Having no strong personal connection to this horrifying event, I feel actually quite selfish being so upset by it.  I know the victim’s family & friends are suffering so much right now.  Yet I also know there are others like me who have no real connection to this story & yet are horrified just the same.

Certainly this is a time of grieving for my hometown & there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking our time to grieve & process such a horrific event.  As I wrote around Christmas, grief is a ghost that will haunt us forever until we learn to work through it (https://athicketofmusingsblog.com/2013/12/18/processing-grief-during-the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year/).  We each must identify the coping mechanisms that help us to work through our grief and the cynicism that can naturally follow such a tragedy.  For me music is quite often the best healer.   Music along with writing is what helps me make sense of a senseless world.  Or perhaps I should say to come to terms with a senseless world.

As it turns out, earlier this week I was fooling around on YouTube, as I often do, & came across a new song by a band I discovered at Uproar Festival in Raleigh in September of 2012, shortly after we moved down here.  The song is called Times are Hard by Redlight King.  I have been listening to it almost non-stop for the past few days & I cannot help but feel like the timing of discovering this song was quite providential for lack of a better word.  The song talks about how when life is hard, when tragedies take us by surprise & there seems to be no balm for our wounds, we need to find someone to hold onto to keep us strong.  How appropriate at a time like this.  To me it’s an empowering song, yet it doesn’t gloss over how difficult life can be at times.  I don’t know if the song was necessarily written about this kind of horrific tragedy, but that’s the beauty of music: it can mean whatever you want it to mean.  It can speak to you wherever you are at this point in time.

I’ll leave you with the lyrics & a link to the song on YouTube.  Check it out.  It’s powerful stuff.

Sooner or later life will pull you in

Make you choose to either sink or swim

Somewhere down the line it’s gonna break your heart

Put you out & make you wear the scars

All these dreams, they come with all this doubt

When we can’t fit in we try to find a way out

Learn to fight so they don’t seal our fate

They say you never see it coming till it’s way too late

These times are hard, feels like nothing’s gonna change

Nowhere to start, & you got nothing for the pain

`Cause when life moves fast, it don’t matter who you are

You gotta find someone to hold onto

Damn, these times are hard

We build those bridges & we watch them burn

So quick to pull the trigger, so slow to take our turn

We’ve all been locked out & we’ve broken down the door

Some of us hit the dirt, some of us still come back for more

When the thirst gets so bad, you’re just dying to get a taste

When it don’t involve religion, when it don’t involve the race

And there’s everything to lose `cause we were never born to win

Willing to sacrifice everything we have just to roll the dice again

These times are hard, feels like nothing’s gonna change

Nowhere to start, & you got nothing for the pain

`Cause when life moves fast, it don’t matter who you are

You gotta find someone to hold onto

Damn, these times are hard

 

Life isn’t perfect, so it’s just what you make it

And that’s what they tell you

But it’s hard when they’re holding you down

Somebody out there for you

They’re praying it all gets easy

Someone you hold onto

These times are hard, feels like nothing’s gonna change

Nowhere to start, & you got nothing for the pain

`Cause when life moves fast, it don’t matter who you are

You gotta find someone to hold onto

Damn, these times are hard