An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.
I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…
So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…
Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…
In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.
There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:
- I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
- This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
- Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
- This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
- It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
- Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
- How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.
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