Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Do You Have The Proper Pedigree?

January 5, 2009

What is it like for an outsider to move into the rural community? What does he or she need to learn? What do they encounter in their efforts to fit in and be accepted?

The struggle to fit in. A North Dakota woman answered these questions in an informative response to my column on the psychology of place-bound people. She said:

"I am in a peculiar place. I am neither place-bound nor (rat) race-bound.

"Growing up in a city encourages one to think of the ‘me’ syndrome. It was my rejection of this set of values during my college life that led me away from my rootless city existence toward the more ‘meaningful’ rural life system.

"Place-bound people do, indeed, celebrate living. However, they celebrate heritage more. Herein lies the problem: While these people pride themselves on their traditional values of family, honesty, warmth, compassion and interest in others and their willingness to give strength in times of trouble, they often fail to see that the carefully knitted community of families excludes all others not having the proper pedigree papers.

"We all get busy with our own families’ affairs, but in small towns this is magnified. After all, everyone has inter-married and thus are related.

"Now, take one member of this tight-knit group and add one city girl, who is open to suggestions but nervous. The sum may produce an interesting marriage but also produces a bride who feels ‘left out in the cold.’ Remember, she didn’t grow up with the place-bound theology. She can’t understand why ‘we have always done it this way’ is important and gets defensive. Her children, on the other hand, fit in fine. They have the pedigree.

"I discovered (I’ve been in this community for over ten years) that the community will open its doors if it knows you care and are willing to show that caring attitude outwardly. Remember, the community would never (or not easily, anyhow) show its true feeling to anyone who is not a member.

"So, this slightly confused transplant had to make the first, second and third moves. I became vulnerable. (The city folks would have been horrified.) I had to trust without knowing the outcome; and I can gratefully say that it is working.

"I still get confused sometimes. I still don’t have the background to the whys and hows. However, with the Lord’s help, I have become an adoptive member.

"Now, on to my point. Though your article was very informative, it was too positive for its own good. The system, existing so peacefully, is living with its doors shut. I hope that my insights and experiences can somehow mesh with those of my fellow community members so that we can all grow together and learn from each other."

Dr. Farmer’s reaction. This woman’s description of the contradictions, paradoxes and excesses of rural ‘theology’ reminds me of the struggle of teenagers who fight the same battle to be accepted when they are newcomers to rural communities. The inner circle belongs to those who have been in school with each other over the years. History is more important than qualities of personality and character.

Outsiders experience the pain of being in a social system that is closed to them. Though outsiders are acutely aware of being on the outside looking in, insiders may not even recognize the cliquishness of their behavior or the many small ways the outsiders are excluded.

On Prince Edward Island, a maritime province of Canada, there are two categories of people - the natives and those from ‘away.’ Though decades pass, a person from ‘away’ will always be just that. Marriage into the family doesn’t automatically eliminate the power of geography of birth or family pedigree in the social order.

What is the answer? The values of the dominant culture, with its emphasis on individualism, freedom and autonomy, allow us to live in a country that rewards initiative and personal striving. Taken to an extreme, we become vulnerable to narcissistic self-absorption and narrow self-interest.

The values of place-bound people, with the emphasis on communion, interdependence and accountability, allow us to live in a country that rewards compassion and commitment to people and causes larger than ourselves. Taken to an extreme, we become vulnerable to complacency, intolerance and rigidity.

As individuals and as a people, we need to balance these two contradictory impulses, the sense of self (or agency) and a sense of selflessness (or communion). It is confusing to strike a balance, as the North Dakota woman noted.

A tight-knit rural community, full of self-pride and self-righteousness, can be an intolerant, cruel and exclusionary place to newcomers while turning its warm, supportive and compassionate face to those who ‘truly’ belong. Perhaps the newcomer has to go the first, second and third mile in learning how to fit in, but they shouldn’t have to face a lifetime sentence for being from that terrible place - ‘away’.