by Chris Anama-Green
Every time I leave my comfortable protective nest that is the Appalachian Mountains, I leave a lot more behind than just the beauty and security of the mountains. I leave behind people who understand me — or at least part of me — the part that most people who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains understand.
Whether we Appalachians like it or not we’re connected, physically and spiritually. We’re made of the same “stuff.” The mountains run through our blood as they rise above us, making us feel that we have a place — that we belong. We carry the mountains with us everywhere we go. Something that “people who aren’t from here” don’t understand.
I both love and hate leaving the mountains. When I leave the mountains I leave behind people who share my common understanding. People who “get” what it is to be Appalachian. People with a deep and meaningful sense of place. But when I leave I gain new perspectives on what it means to be human. I learn about people who do it differently — not necessarily wrong — just differently. Most of the time travel makes me feel renewed while also making me thankful for home. Most of the time.
You see, when I leave the mountains I find all kinds of people. Some are nice. Some are tedious. Some are downright mean. Most don’t understand “mountain people.” Every time I open my mouth (when I’m speaking English at least) I give myself away. If you’ve ever left the mountains, you know what comes next.
“Where are you from?” (Appalachia.)
“Are you from Texas?” (No.)
“I just love your accent.” (Thank you?)
Those are the kind folks. Then there are the well-meaning folks.
“In your opinion, what do you think is wrong with Appalachia?” (I was born here, I got most of my education here, I live and maintain gainful employment here. I don’t follow…)
“I just read Hillbilly Elegy — do you know the author?” (Thankfully no, I don’t, and I would like to keep it that way. I agree with this fellow.)
“Why do people sell their pills?” (Why do people sell any drugs?)
“Do you have any diversity there?” (Yes…)
“Do you have running water/electricity/internet/TV/paved roads/food/shoes?” (Yes, yes, yes.)
There are those who hope to “educate” us.
“You’re supposed to pronounce it app-uh-lay-shuh.” (No. You don’t get to decide.)
“You do know coal isn’t coming back right?” (So I’ve heard.)
“With as much education as you have, I’m surprised you decided to stay there.” (Does being educated mean that I have to move away from home?)
Then of course, there are those “other” folks. The folks who wear their privilege with pride and genuinely seem to enjoy being malicious.
“I thought y’all never did get out of them thar hollers.” (…)
“I didn’t know there were any educated people in the mountains.” (…)
“I thought all civilization ended after ________ (insert the name of a major city here).” (…)
Those who live in or are from Appalachia will probably understand how ridiculous each of these generalizations is. We’ve all heard them. We’ve all seen our people as the butt of jokes on TV/online/in books, which seems to make it “OK” to treat us as sub-human in real life.
It depends on the situation, but I find it hardest to make peace in my heart with those who seem to enjoy being malicious. After all, those who “mean well” have no idea how insulting their questions really are. (Or do they?) At the end of the day I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference. I don’t know what is in another person’s heart. I can’t judge them. Or at least I shouldn’t, as being self-righteous doesn’t make me a better person.
So what is a spiritual person from Appalachia to do when confronted with someone who looks down on us, pities us, or hates us because of where we live?
For starters, responding in anger is about the least helpful thing that we can do. I’ll admit that I’ve responded in anger, taking pleasure in shutting down the ego of the person criticizing/judging/belittling me. But what good did that do? This kind of response just creates resentment in both parties.
So now, when I feel my blood start to boil (usually by the time the other person reaches question #3 or #4) I take a deep breath and shut my mouth. If necessary I nod and smile. And later, when I can compose myself, I try to look for an opportunity to respond a bit more lovingly. But sometimes, I simply can’t.
Ultimately, as hard as this is to digest, I believe we are called to respond with grace. When someone offends us, belittles us, or downright hates us, our job is to forgive them.
WHAT? You may be thinking. I’m supposed to let them off the hook?
Yes. For your own benefit. Don’t use these encounters to drive hate and to create more space between “us” and “them.” There’s quite enough space already. Forgive. Assume that they don’t know any better. Most of the time, they don’t. And it’s their loss. Communicate how you feel, if you can. If you can’t, turn the experience into something constructive. Do something to show how much you love your community. Do something to show that you can do better than spite — you can do love.