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 international city, where she found rewarding work and moved a large circle of interesting friends. She had many admirers, and eventually married a successful man who loved her and treated her well. They traveled extensively and saw the most exotic corners of the world. They had two children — a niece and a nephew — whom I only saw perhaps once a decade.
I stayed put, rarely venturing more than half a day’s journey from home. I envied her life, but I knew I could never follow in her path. My brothers, 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 my brothers and me was that while I despised myself for my fears, they either did not have any or they pushed them down so thoroughly or disguised them to themselves, they were not aware of them.
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 suitor, I needed my family’s approval. I was afraid to venture 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 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 obedient. The worry that our deepest personal secrets might be publicly revealed, perhaps discussed at a church social or whispered about in the beauty 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 didn’t leave, they would wither and die. They, like my sister, made their escape and rarely returned.
I envied my sister for breaking away; for being brave enough to create her own version of happiness while I remained riveted to my unchallenged, uneventful life.
I did not have much trouble or sadness or conflict so I assumed I was happy. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I nurtured my children, obeyed my husband, did the requisite charity work, faithfully attended church. Others made my decisions for me.
Because of all this, I missed many opportunities.