Mark Twain had it right
”Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Many of us have found these words of Mark Twain to be so true as we have traveled to foreign lands, experiencing new cultures, and encountering situations where we are “the other.” I know that in my own travels to Europe, for example, I embraced the “new” vigorously and without prejudice, hoping to expand my horizons beyond the confines of my middle class, Liberal, White American point of view.
Recently, my travels over these last four months have been through a new “foreign land” - Rural America. And as I have been traveling across this rural countryside, I have been mulling over how apropos Twain’s words might be here in this new land I am experiencing as “the other.”
Rural America has received much ridicule in recent years for what has been characterized as “backwoods” attitudes and lack of intelligence when it comes to current issues. In my own urban culture, we have questioned the compassion of folks who live in these foreign lands, and we have impugned their character.
But driving across these lands and through these small towns, I have begun to wonder if it has been I who have been guilty of prejudice and lack of openness to “the other.”
As I have driven past homesteads surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of acres with nary a neighbor in sight, I think about how strange our big city concerns must seem. The headline touting Seattle as the having the best naked bike parade would seem very other worldly to the family scratching out a living on a family farm working from sunup to sunset with no break from their labors. To the community of 546 people and declining, concerns about what pronoun should be used in addressing their lifelong neighbors would seem ridiculous.
Having millions of tax dollars going to try and solve the issue of the homelessness that pervades our large cities would seem a small issue to someone whose streets, when they visit, are filled with others who only come into town for supplies before heading out to an equally isolated life. And, it occurs to me, that maybe when someone is in need here, the small community comes together to help each other out. In such a circumstance, creating expensive infrastructures to do what comes naturally to neighbors in a small town would seem wasteful and puzzling, since neighbors are expected to take care of their own.
I know that problems occur in all communities, large and small, but the sheer volume of what we encounter in our urban areas shines a bright light on problems that would seem very dim to some of those rural communities. Not only have they been isolated from the world as I know it, but I have been isolated as well from the world as they know it.
As with most criticisms, pointing a finger at others points all the others in my hand at me, and I recognize that it is time for me to begin to try and understand this other side of America… to travel metaphorically so as to counter the prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness of which Twain speaks.
And of which, I now realize, I am perhaps most guilty.
In doing so, I may find more commonalities than differences. In doing so, I may begin to more fully understand the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and be able to extend a hand of grace and acceptance with the same vigor as I embraced other cultures different than my own.
And in doing so, I may find that as with most travel, sometimes the farthest distance we will ever cross is within our own heart’s landscape.