Today I had a conversation with a friend a while ago about an aspect of the COVID-19 situation that raised another issue I care about deeply. First, let me first tell you about the conversation, and then I’ll share the issue that came up for me.
The person with whom I was speaking was from a mid-sized city. The person was talking about a conversation with another where the other person (from a rural area) talked about a COVID-related death in the person’s community. The other person talked about the loss in very personal ways. “It was confusing,” the person I spoke with said, “because the other person didn’t know the deceased that well.”
Here’s what that conversation raised for me: the issue of geographical cultural diversity.
You see I was born and raised in a small town of less than 2,000 people. Because of this, I developed a pretty good understanding of how folks in Western small towns and rural areas think. I then went off to college and spent my twenties in cities that had populations of roughly 200,000. Then, in my thirties, I moved to a town of nearly 2 million. I’ve then spent my forties and early 50’s in the second largest city in the United States – Los Angeles – that has a population of roughly 4 million.
These years spent in communities of radically different sizes have developed within me the passionate conviction that where one lives (one’s “geographical orientation”, if you will) is every bit as real as other recognized categories such as age, race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The conversation above is a perfect example of this. Let me tell you why I say that.
In small towns, virtually everyone in the community knows each other. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing – but I digress … So if something happens to ANYONE in the community, regardless of how much time and energy you invested in the relationship, you feel VERY affected by the event.
When I lived in the big cities and would call home each week, for instance, my parents would often ask if I knew so-and-so. I would pause for a moment, wrack my brain, and then say something like, “Sort of. I think we were in 8th grade math class together, but I haven’t seen them in nearly 40 years.” Then my parents would let go with a torrent of information about either a great joy or tragedy that happened to my “classmate” – assuming I would be deeply affected by the information. That is the way many small towns and rural areas operate.
Things don’t work that way in the big city. It is not uncommon for folks to be next door neighbors for 20 years in the big city, and barely know each other’s names. In the part of the city where I live, for instance, many know the gardeners of their neighbors better than their actual neighbors – since they occasionally see and interact with the gardeners.
So when something big happens in the big city and a person learns the joy or tragedy happened to someone in their neighborhood, there is a general shrug given – or a “that’s too bad”. Events don’t register on the same level – due to the cultural differences between small towns/rural areas and urban centers.
I have had this conversation a LOT with my friends in politics. Lots of people know, for instance, that for decades suburbs and rural areas have gone “red” while big cities tend to go “blue”. Usually, those differences are reported with a sneer. Those in “red areas” for instance, talk about the big-city liberals who think they are better than everyone else; while those in “blue areas” often talk about the rednecks in rural areas – or the self-centered voters in the suburbs – who don’t care about others.
We get stuck with that tired old narrative election, after election, after election, after election … And as someone who has lived in each setting for decades and has gotten to know and love people of all geographical orientations, I know neither of these characterizations are true. Sigh ☹
I wonder what would happen if we as a country began to take geographical orientation seriously – and extended ourselves to learn about those who live geographically different lives than we do. Perhaps there would be less stereotyping and name-calling, and more bridge-building and relationship nurturing.
Sadly, the COVID-19 experience is providing a common experience that folks in rural, suburban, and urban areas are all dealing with. But are they dealing with the same experience in the same ways? I think not. I would encourage you in coming days to watch and listen very closely to HOW folks in different areas of the country are dealing with it. For while the event may be the same on the surface, if you dig deeper, their experience of it is different.
And you know what? For this rural/suburban/urban boy, that’s okay. I will work on keeping talking less about my urban/suburban-ish experience and listening more to the experience of others. At least on my good days …
So what does the topic of geographical orientation raise for you?