What do you usually say when someone asks you, where are you from? Is that an easy question to answer? For years this was perhaps the most challenging question for me because it came with such a complex answer. Well, technically I was born in Germany and lived there until about grade school (military brat). Yet, most of the four elementary schools and two middle schools that I attended were in south Georgia near Savannah so I guess you could say that I’m from there… Though, both sides of my extended family are from Anderson, South Carolina (home of the college football National Champions Clemson Tigers of course). And well, since I did attend high school in Anderson (the same high school as both of my parents and several aunts, uncles, and cousins), then I guess Anderson is home. But then there’s the fact that I moved to Atlanta to attend college almost 18 years ago and I’ve been here ever since. So…you tell me, which one should I call home?
The truth is, my answer usually depends on who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about. It’s always been my dream though for my kids to have a different answer. Perhaps it’s a function of living in so many different places and not feeling rooted, but I’ve always admired people with a simple answer to the question, where are you from? My wife is one of those people. It’s one of the first things I loved about her. She grew up in east Baltimore, and spent her entire life there, in that city, much of it in one neighborhood and one home. Even now when we go back to visit, most of her family remains.
Whenever we visit I make her take me on mini-tours explaining the history of what happened where. Not Baltimore history mind you, I’m talking family history. Here’s where I used to catch the bus for school. Here’s where I used to walk to get snowballs. Just last month while we were in Baltimore for the holidays she took us on a tour of her old school. What’s amazing is that despite being gone for the past 18 years (we met at college here in Atlanta), she’s still connected to that place. One could argue that she left because she was tired of that place, and likely she might even agree in part. It’s hard for me to accept sometimes the fact that one day each of my four girls will likely leave in search of their own new adventures, and that search might take them to another place.
But, there’s a gift that I believe comes with being rooted, and it’s what I’ve seen in my wife and it’s what I want for my daughters. The connection to a place is really more about a connection to a community. For Samantha it was her family and her faith community. Their church was a walk’s distance from their home and they spent much of their time there. Both her family and her faith community gave her a sense of purpose and a strong sense of belonging. When I first met her in our freshmen dorm, she oozed confidence because she knew who she was and where she came from. It took me a little more time to figure those two things out.
It’s why Samantha and I have been intentional about seeking out and choosing a community to set down roots and grow together. Recently I finished reading the book Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal by Ben Sasse and while he argues that loneliness at the root of our cultural divide, the answer is community. We’re not as intentional as we used to be about being in community with one another due to an increasingly mobile and fragmented economy and society. We’ve decided we can make do without each other more or less. And this lack of interaction with one another has led to a severe empathy gap, (because, how can you understand someone that you barely know?).
Our attempt at rootedness is a work in progress for sure because we still struggle with the same contradictions of being connected to a place while having access to the benefits of social and economic mobility. Yes we wear our community pride on our sleeves like a badge of honor, and yet, most of our volunteerism happens outside of our neighborhood (what about the neighbor in need down the street whose need I don’t yet know about?). Yes we support our neighborhood schools, but send two of our children to a charter school ten minutes further down the street. There’s a lovely church up the street that we’ve been meaning to visit, but each Sunday we drive 25 minutes outside of our community to attend another one.
We are the folks who can opt out, and when it benefits us we generally do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is increasingly at odds with our ideals of interconnectedness and community. Sasse makes an interesting argument saying:
Mobility breeds rootlessness, and our rootlessness results not in improved communities but in more isolation. Mobility, like frequent repotting of plants tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots. After having done this multiple times, though, many people decide- in the interests of preserving energy, both physical and emotional- to stop even making an attempt to put down roots. Building community takes time and energy and emotional risk, and so it’s often easier to guard our heart than to invest. After all, we aren’t sure how long we’ll be around.Ben Sasse, Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal
This is a problem not only for folks like my family, but also for those who are “stuck” in communities with limited economic options.
When the mobile- who can be mobile because they have the social capital to support themselves…fail to invest, they deprive the stuck of access to their social capital surplus.Ben Sasse, Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal
This is the real reason why Samantha and I choose our specific community, and why we wanted to be rooted in the first place. We wanted to be a part of the solution. To whom much has been given right?
Which brings me back to my wife and our girls. The truth is, who knows how long we’ll be in this home, in this neighborhood, in this community. Apparently the average time a person spends in one home is four years. Yikes. Here’s what I do know: grow where you’re planted. Even though I’ve moved around a lot, and now pride myself on the fact that this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place, I’ve also been able to grow in the various places I was planted. Adults would tell my siblings and I that we were “well adjusted” growing up because we always made quick friends, and got involved in activities through church and sports. I want my girls to have the same attributes. Whether we’re here for a season or many seasons to come, my hope is that the time here leaves us better and the people around us better as well.