Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Mountain State: Should I stay or should I go?

People are always trying to discover their identity in this world, and humans identify and classify themselves in a number of ways.  What comprises the qualities that define who you are?  For most of us, there isn't a singular answer to that question.  Gender, race, families, jobs, genes, talents, faith, environment -- these are traits that help define who we are.  Some traits we choose, others are innate.  But perhaps no trait is more significant to people in West Virginia than the fact that they are from West Virginia. 

A recent article in the Charleston Daily Mail stirred up discussion about West Virginia and the characteristics of the people living in this state.  The article, by a Charleston native, Courtney Forbes, wrote about the reasons she was leaving West Virginia, and her words struck a nerve with residents.  The reactions were mostly very negative, with many folks taking the attitude of "good riddance." 

The fact that Forbes' article generated such a negative reaction leads me to believe that she might have a few good points.  Also, I faced the same question that Forbes had been asking herself.  Do I stay or do I go?  Though I decided to stay, I have to admit that West Virginians exhibit some odd qualities.  These qualities, which often represent our greatest strengths, double as glaring weaknesses.

The negative reactions from West Virginians to Forbes' article demonstrated a very significant quality of people living here.  West Virginians are clannish.  If you're born here, or even if you moved into the state, you are one of us.  The people here share in the same life experiences, and in West Virginia, many of those life experiences represent hardships of some kind.  The kinship and empathy built through these shared experiences does something to us that's difficult to describe.  We have a feeling of family here.  People help each other, display random acts of kindness, and show courtesies not easily found in other places.

That family mentality cuts two ways.  If you leave West Virginia with no intention of coming back, many people see that as a betrayal.  The people here understand if there's a genuine need for you to leave.  If you have a family to support, then that's a respectable reason to go.  However, in the situation of Courtney Forbes, people are not so forgiving.  She isn't married, has no children, and has a good job.  For many West Virginians, it just doesn't click as to why someone in her position would leave the state.  You're part of a family here.  Why would you abandon your family? 

Forbes' article also presented a strange tone that doesn't sit well with the Mountain State.  Despite her statement to the contrary, people will see her rationale for leaving as self-serving and borderline elitist.  West Virginians read her article and thought, "She believes she deserves better than us." They took her article too personally because sometimes, words in print can't convey the true feelings of the writer.   West Virginians value humility.  In the eyes of the state, she attempted to elevate herself to a position of importance she hadn't earned, so her opinion can be disregarded.

While humility is a quality that each of us should strive to implement into our lives, West Virginians often have mistaken complacency for humility.  Everyone should spend a little bit of time digesting the reality of their significance with respect to a very big world.  We should all understand that the world will continue with or without us.  However, that doesn't mean that any of us should shrink away from using our talents and skills to better ourselves. 

There's definitely a fine line between humility and arrogance, but West Virginians are afraid to even approach it.  In doing so, West Virginians lose out on the ability to achieve their true potential for fear of being seen as a sellout. 

Author Marianne Williamson touched on this issue, and though I doubt she had West Virginia in mind when writing, I think her words accurately describe many people here:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. ... Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. ... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."
I believe West Virginians do 'play small' for fear of how others will see them.  One of the most frustrating questions I've ever been asked is, "Why do you have to try to be better than what you were raised?" This mentality is pervasive in the Mountain State.  Try to have success, but not too much success that other people feel bad about not achieving at the same level as you.  This is younger people want to leave the state.  The state unintentionally holds them back.

The sense of humility is also predicated on the fact that West Virginians are old.  Our citizens are old, very old.  We are one of only five states in the nation with a median age above 40.  That provides us with an aging population, and there's great value in the life experience and wisdom that comes with age.  Older citizens can share their insight to successes and failures, which can serve to guide the younger generation.

The problem with this older, seasoned population is that they think wisdom can only be acquired through age, and that younger adults can't handle responsibility.  Nobody does it like our generation did it.  Isn't this the mantra of every generation?  One of the reasons that Forbes stated for her departure from Charleston was the lack of respect attributed to young professionals.  I can sympathize with this problem.  In a workplace setting, it's difficult to hand the reins to a younger adult for fear that they will make mistakes.  Isn't that the point?  How can younger adults make important decisions without experience in making important decisions?  This is the way in which we obtain wisdom.  Forbes didn't want to kowtow to the establishment any longer, and that's more than understandable. 

Also, Forbes' article was doomed because she committed a cardinal sin here.  West Virginians do not air their dirty laundry.  I don't know if this quality is so prevalent in other regions, but we don't talk about the problems in our families, towns, or state in public.  We want to focus on what we have going well, and pretend like everything is normal.  The sense of normalcy is a good feeling, like that of a security blanket.  Not talking about our problems gives people a chance to start over, to accept others, and to let people be. 

The sense of normalcy, however, is not normalcy.  West Virginia puts up a front where we tell everyone that everything is all right when it clearly is not.  This policy is unsustainable and Courtney Forbes told us as much.  Some facts about our state:

  • We also rank first in the nation in percentage of adults with diabetes (13%), and three of the state's cities ranked in the Forbes Top 10 Fattest Cities of 2015 (Huntington at 1st, Martinsburg at 3rd, and Charleston at 6th). 

  • West Virginia's economy is hurting, and has been for some time.  We recently ranked 44th in economic growth in the United States. 

  • Over each of the last four years, West Virginia has ranked first in the number of drug overdoses, which stem largely from prescription drug abuse and illegal heroin. 

  • West Virginia now has less than half (49.8%) of its population (age 16 and over) actually working.  This stems from poor overall health, lack of young people to staff jobs, and others who lack the adequate training.  We are the only state to ever fall below the 50% barrier.

The serious problems of West Virginia are sensitive subjects, particularly when someone throws them into the light while on their way out the door.  Does it change the truthfulness of what Forbes wrote?  Not one bit.  And I hope West Virginians choke on every last word, because this state is in a fight for its very soul.  The state is experiencing the loss of some of its best citizens and the loss is coming in part because of some of the characteristics that make this state so great.  The challenge for all of us is figuring out how to temper the goodness of these qualities of the past with the changes needed for the future.

So, should I stay, or should I go?  Regardless of how you answer that question, you can't blame Courtney Forbes or any other young professional in West Virginia.  They're trying to find their way just like the rest of us.


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