As a young adult, admitting that I was from a small town was like fessing up to a misdemeanor in the school of cool. Today, I admit my growing-up-in a-small-townness with pride. (Yes, I know townness is not a word.) I’ve been wondering lately, why I have this new affinity and pride in my small-town upbringing, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.
Cities as a whole are compact, highly-populated, fast-moving, invigorating places of opportunity. They offer culture, employment, diversity, higher education. Yet cities can also be cold, every-man-is-an-island, highly competitive and transient. Sure, there are pockets of steadfastness: neighborhoods where people stick around for years, places where everybody knows your name. But once you step outside of that neighborhood, cafe, gym, school, you become anonymous, a sudden stranger among strangers. This causes a shift in energy, a natural inclination to turn inward, drop your smile, break eye contact; essentially, parking a segment of your humanity at the curb.
In the busiest sections of the city, everyone keeps their eyes on the horizon (which you can’t really see for all the tall buildings) and even though we are all walking together on the sidewalk, waiting together in line, sitting right next to each other in that tram or theater or restaurant, we are essentially a highly functional, anti-social school of fish: swimming together but apart.
You reclaim that checked humanity when you encounter someone you know, essentially snapping out of your trance of feigned or true indifference. Faces light up. Greetings are exchanged. If there’s time, you might stop for a chat. Once the encounter is over, however, you slowly slip back into that self-protecting, I-am-an-island, anonymity.
Small towns are different. They usually lack cultural diversity, institutions of higher education, world-renowned museums and white collar jobs. But where they may lack in one way, they make up for in other ways. Ask just about anyone who lives in a small town, and they will tell you that people are friendlier there, values are stronger, the community more closely knit, that they feel safe, cherish the open space, the friendliness, that small towns are a great place to raise kids and wonderful places to retire.
Take Schagen, The Netherlands, for example. This small city located in North Holland exudes small-town friendliness. I’ve met numerous people whose families have lived here for generations. If you walk around with these folks, they wave frequently, because they are either related to, went to school with or somehow know the majority of the people around them. And if they don’t know you, that small-town friendliness is still extended to you. I’m not saying they blindly embrace you, but they give you the benefit of the doubt until you prove them wrong.
I loathed this “everybody knows everybody” idea growing up, but now I see its values. There’s no checking your humanity at the curb. You can walk around with your full humanity all of the time, because for the most part, you know who’s looking for trouble, and if you don’t know, someone else does. You are accountable to your community and to yourself. That doesn’t mean that everybody always does the right thing, but they’re certainly more motivated to try.
I’ve lived in Schagen for six short months, and I can already feel my roots longing to unfurl. These same roots were curled into tight balls of resistance with no intention of letting down when I lived in The Hague. I had similar experiences when I lived in Boston and even a bit of that sensation in Santa Barbara. It’s not that I didn’t open up in those places. On the contrary. I developed deep social networks and friendships in those cities that have enriched my life and humanity.
Nevertheless, I never felt completely at home. Living in a small town offers something a city can never provide me: inner peace and calm. Here, I am more relaxed, more open. I can breathe again. People aren’t in a hurry. They’re friendly and there’s time for one another.
I know it’s not the same for everyone. I have friends, cosmopolitan, cultural types that would view living in a small town as a death sentence to their creative soul, as a disconnect from the contemporary world that is so lush and brazen and exciting in its diversity. True. All true. But here’s the difference. When you live in a small, friendly, human-scale town surrounded by fields of crops, waterways, windswept dikes, long stretches of cycling paths and cows and sheep grazing in great expanses of open pasture, it’s like you are attending a subtle, year-round mindfulness retreat. Mindful of each other. Mindful of nature.
This peaceful energy enters you as if by osmosis. Whether intentional or not, you and your neighbors have absorbed this friendly mentality and freeing open space into your souls.
Now when I go to the big city, it’s as if I carry that space within me; like I’ve been inoculated with a small-town vaccine that protects me from indifference and keeps my humanity fully intact. Now, when I leave home and go to the big city, I do so with a fresh perspective. From this space, I can immerse myself in the wild city pulse of Amsterdam, hear a hundred different languages while walking the city streets of The Hague, and do so with my heart wide open. I can tolerate all of the people and traffic and chaos with the knowledge that at the end of the day, I will return to my small town, to my year-round mindfulness retreat.
I’m quite sure if I’d grown up in a big city, rather than a little village, I’d have another perspective on all of this, and believe that my humanity is 100% intact all of the time. But after eight years of living in a densely populated urban environment, I am more certain than ever that I am best suited for a small town. Only in such a personal environment can I let my roots once again unfurl.