As a mother of two teenagers, I am often amused and sometimes heartbroken as I stand by and observe my children in the process of figuring out who they are, what they stand for, and where they want to go. When they are clear and passionate, there is a truth and vigor that is immediately apparent and radiant. But more often, the struggle of the teen years is defined by the uncertainty they feel as they try to differentiate themselves from their parents and peers, and negotiate their ways into adulthood.
As most of us know, this struggle does not end with the teen years and plenty of adults continue to find themselves at war with how their expectations of life do or don’t match up with their realities. At 46, I still grapple with many of these issues myself, though thankfully with much less urgency than was once the case. As time has passed I have become increasingly comfortable in my own skin and have learned to simply accept and even embrace some of the quirkier parts of my personality. What has been clear, both in my own journey and in watching my children grow and change, is that when we feel comfortable with who we are —even when we don’t meet the expectations of others— we shine. Self-acceptance —warts and all— does not mean complacency or that we should not still strive to improve, it simply means being comfortable with our own unique identity and embracing it.
I see this in my small town work as well, as I travel around the country looking for towns that embrace certain values and possess a particular energy. It is not easy to be small or rural these days, and trends suggest that many small towns —towns that were once thriving and vibrant— are simply withering away. But through my travels I have consistently found that those places that thrive are the ones that embrace their roots while evolving and adapting to change. They move forward with the issues of the times -holding and considering the needs of the future while continuing to embrace the cultural backstory of time and place. Towns that are unable to embrace change seem to be destined either to die out or to be caught in a crisis of identity, where the old and the new remain in conflict. The ensuing muddledness is detectable in the atmosphere.
I recently visited a town that had everything going for it — amazing outdoor resources, an impressive local food scene and a thriving arts community, but something was missing. The town didn’t d feel as vibrant as I would have expected from a place with so many valuable resources. After much pondering, I have come to the conclusion that the reason for this is because the community itself did not have a clear vision of the identity of the town, and instead of embracing, celebrating and nurturing a multi-faceted vision, they were at war with themselves. Just as it is palpable when an individual is clear and focused, likewise with organizations and towns: the "real" in realsmalltowns.com speaks to a clarity and authenticity that resonates outwards and inspires.
"One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don't invest any energy in them, because I know who I am."
- Michelle Obama