What is success?

AKA, rural poverty is not always what it appears

Funny thought, isn’t it? Triggered by some of the comments to this blog post.

Not to get too deeply into them, since that would lead to the assumption that I had read them all. I haven’t, because after a while, comments tend to repeat themselves, and some of the commenters were beginning to annoy me.

But anyway, the thought that I had in response to this had to do with the descriptions of the poverty in Appalachia. Now I don’t want to downplay the observations about poverty and the kind of shame that some of the commenters were describing, because it is perfectly true. That emotion is real and powerful. While I myself did not grow up in that kind of area, I have maternal roots in that area, and relatives who still live there. One of my closest friends comes from those same kinds of roots in Tennessee. I recognize that emotion.

It’s just that I have a counter-experience to offer and a sense of peace that I have achieved.

When going back to visit some of my family, I see a different experience. Partly that goes back to the fact that these relatives have not been limited by their roots, but rather strengthened. Which is why I think that sense of peace is there — by not being limited by those foundations, I have been able to see, both in myself and in my cousins, that those foundations have strengthened rather than weakened us. We are not ashamed of where we come from because we see the family ties that have given us the stability to reach past those areas and then to circle back to them.

Let me give an example: three cousins of the same family who grew up at least part of their youth in Appalachia.

Cousin 1 went into the armed forces and has had great success. He is nearing retirement at a fairly high officer level and will probably retire and find himself some other job in an area close to where he grew up in order to be close to family.

Cousin 2 got a good job with a company that moved her several times. In the process she eventually married and had two children. She and her husband have moved back to that general area where she grew up, and she has specifically stated that she went back there to raise her children in that environment.

Cousin 3 never completely left that area, but has pursued a career in law enforcement, and has had considerable success in the sense of earning well and raising his family where he wants to. He always wanted law enforcement, and never really desired to work in a big city, but instead has definitely preferred the small town atmosphere in which he grew up.

All three of them have experienced sufficient monetary success to not be limited to one area. But the money was always just a tool. What is more important is, I think, the fact that even as they achieved the freedom to leave if they so desired, they chose to stay, or at the very least, hold to their roots. The bonds of family and church and community hold them strongly and give them stability. They do not limit them or cause them to feel despair or shame. This does not mean that they do not recognize the problems: unemployment is a reality in many of those areas, health problems — such as the unhealthy eating and lack of exercise that leads to obesity problems — are very real, and quite a few of the people in those areas did “settle” for an average job that would never pay lots of money. But that does not make these people unsuccessful. It has taken me a while to see this more clearly, but I have begun to recognize that the individuals who do choose to stay in those areas are not always doing so because they are limited by lack of money or opportunity or courage or anything else you might name. They choose to stay because their priorities are different.

I’m not sure if I could have achieved that kind of mental peace if I had stayed in the area where I grew up. I did actually grow up in a suburb, far away from those mountain roots in which my mother grew, but the mental limitations of staying were the same for me. But because I did move away and have grown as I have grown, I begin to recognize that I could willingly move into a rural area and have a good life there. The main reason I don’t is because of the kind of work I do; it is hard to find my kind of work in one of those rural areas. The closest possibility for me would be to find a college town, where you get the opportunity for my kind of specialized work and a small town atmosphere.

I would also add that the internet and the increasingly globalized world in which we live is one of the things that makes this possible as well. Being rural is no longer a reason to be detached from the larger world — and that is more important than many people realize.

Anyway, that’s just some of the counter thoughts that I sometimes have as I read negative comments about the Appalachian area. The hill folk are nowhere near as limited as you might think.

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