First published February 2, 2016
I grew up in a small farming town with an older sister and two younger brothers. My sister and I could not have been more different. She was everything I was not but wished I could be. She took risks and did as she pleased, while I was afraid of disappointing others. She was outgoing and made friends easily, while I tended to trust only those I’d known all my life.
She left home as soon as she was old enough and headed to a big city, where she found work. She moved a large circle of interesting friends. She had many admirers, and eventually married a successful businessman. They traveled extensively and saw the world. They had a couple of children — a niece and a nephew whom I barely ever saw. As far as I could see, they were quite happy.
I stayed put, rarely venturing more than fifty miles from home. I envied her life, but I knew I could never follow in her path. My brothers, however, rather than envy her, resented her for leaving them with a heavier load. They were happy to remain in our town; content with their lives. The difference between me and my brothers was that while I despised my fears, they either didn’t have them or repressed them so thoroughly they did not acknowledge them at all.
There are many kinds of fear in the world, but I suffered from a particular brand of cowardice that permeates small towns. I was afraid of making a mistake with my life; of doing something unfortunate which could not be undone, so I let others make choices for me. Before I committed to a gentleman friend, I needed my family’s approval. I was afraid to venture out into the unknown lest what I believed to be right be proven wrong. I hesitated to make my own moral decisions for fear I’d end up in Hell, and so I followed the rules of the church.
In a small, closed community, politics is little more than institutionalized gossip, power struggles among the mostly powerless, and petty vengeance. Those who are willing to speak most loudly are those who seize control.. And so it was in our town. No one attempted to topple the pecking order; it was simply accepted as the natural way of things. Our brand of cowardice preferred a strong, confident person telling us what was right and wrong, even if it wasn’t.
Gossip was a necessary evil which kept us in line. The worry that our deepest personal secrets might be publicly revealed, discussed at a church social or whispered about in the salon as if we were a character in a tawdry novel, was enough to keep most of us on the straight and narrow.
Those who did not fear change, who were willing to speak truth to power, who embraced the unknown, who thrived on risk, quickly came to the conclusion that if they did not leave, they would wither and die. They, like my sister, made their escapes and rarely returned.
I envied my sister the courage to break away; for being brave enough to create her own version of happiness while I remained riveted to my unchallenged, uneventful life.
My life was happy, in its small way. I did not have much trouble or sadness or conflict. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how things might be. I nurtured my children, obeyed my husband, did the requisite charity work, faithfully attended church. Others made my decisions for me. I died in old age, surrounded by loved ones.
Nobody who knew me while I lived would say I led a tragic life. But from here I can say I wasted a lot of opportunities for spiritual evolution.
(this narrator came to me sitting on a porch, telling her story.)