I grew up in a small town. Actually, that’s an understatement. Where I grew up, a small town is where you went for excitement. I lived in this strange rural/suburban mashup that was too far away from anything to be in any way convenient. School, my friends, life….all a minimum of 30 minutes away. Except for our church. That was conveniently “just up the road.”
I exaggerate a bit. Not all of my friends were far away. I had close friends in my church youth group (yes, I’m part of that generation in which the youth group was a staple for any regular church-going family), and I had close friends in school, but the strange part was…they were never the same group, and they never mixed. There were a variety of reasons for that. Several of my friends in the church group attended private schools, and some actually attended my school but were just part of a different crowd. We all remember how agonizingly clique-ish high school was.
As I grew older, I spent more time with my school friends, because all of my extra-curricular activities were with them. I still attended church regularly, but I really never saw my church friends outside of service times or youth group. By the time I left for college, that group of friends had really dwindled into almost no one with whom I maintained contact. Such was life. Such was getting older, growing up, “coming of age,” as they say.
You see, I always wanted the excitement of the city. I couldn’t leave where I grew up fast enough, much to my family’s chagrin, and I’ve sought out urban areas in which to live as an adult. I remember returning home for a visit at one point, and needing to fill up the car. I drove for 20 minutes to a service station, at which I could just fill up without paying at the pump first…the honor system that I would go in and pay after. How quickly I had forgotten this life.
When we visited my parents two summers ago, my Mom needed help running some errands in an even more rural area than they live. I drove her out the winding country roads, over hills with sharp switchbacks and narrow passages in which you just sort of hope that you don’t meet oncoming traffic (although the term “traffic” doesn’t really apply there), until we reached our destination…a church on a hilltop.
It was a sunny, August day with a blue sky devoid of clouds. At the top of the hill, just a few hundred yards before the church, sat a man in a utility truck. I imagine he was on a lunch break. He was the only other person in sight within the expansive view in front of us. It was peaceful…birds chirping the only sound one could hear. I remember stopping to take in the scene, to memorize it. It was so very different than my daily life now. My father worked in those sorts of areas until he retired. He would tell stories of some adventures that he experienced, but he loved the remote-ness, the peace and quiet, I think because he was drafted into service during Vietnam and saw the world in a way he never wanted.
When I was in high school, the closer I came to my senior year, I remember feeling more and more out of place at church. This wasn’t because I was losing my faith or anything of that nature, just that the culture of those people was waning on me, was one in which (I say to my discredit) I just wasn’t interested. There was a conversation from a couple of years prior that had been lost to the fog of memory for me until recently when it floated to the surface for some reason. One of my youth group friends pondered what would happen if there was a huge fight between the “city kids” and her friends. What would happen? Who would win? That conversation sat with me for a while. It felt symbolic, representative of a feeling that I had difficulty articulating, the embodiment of why I could never reconcile the two circles in which I traveled.
Is this where our differences come from? The cognitive dissonance between experiences causes a gap that we can’t bridge. I never connected these groups of friends not because of faith, but because of culture, not being mature enough at the time to see that faith can be a bridge between cultures. I walked in both worlds with much effort, not because of rare opportunity but because of determination. Now, when I return to visit, I understand the people there. I get how they think, because I was one of them, the same as I understand how people think where I live now because I’ve become one of them. The more we experience, the more we understand, the more we can hear. These experiences, these chances to see new things, have grown all too rare for most in a pandemic world, which only serves to exacerbate our divisions, because the inverse is also true. The less we experience, the fewer new things and other people that we encounter, the less we understand, the more isolationist we become. The deeper our divisions grow. The more we dwell on the differences of the unknown “other.”
As normalcy returns to us, I think the cure is fairly simple.
Anxiety and hatred aren’t formed in a vacuum, but…they will die in the sunlight.