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