SCHMIDT: Small towns can help us develop character

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By Paul Schmidt

Last fall I got hurt in an accident, and for two months, I couldn't drive, write or keyboard. I was so overwhelmed by the many helpful things our family and friends thought to do and the joy they seemed to take in doing it that I began to wonder if there's something about a small town that develops some people's character such that they enjoy the right thing.

Sure, just like in big cities, there are good and bad people in small communities. But I think that when it comes to character – honesty, kindness, humility, loyalty – the rich (in character) may get richer in a small town.

Maybe it happens in cities too, but I think that to me, the happy development of some people’s character is more obvious and pronounced in a small town. So how could this happen?

We see how we reap what we sow. The smaller our circle of life, the more readily we see how what goes around comes around. Unlike those who live in cities, we have to get along with each other, because our paths keep crossing.

Every would-be enemy has friends and family that would become our enemies, too. We know deep down that we are connected to each other, and that we need to be friends.

It's hard to be two-faced in a small town. Here we have extra incentives to be sincere. We can't deceive or run from the people we work with, the folks we loosen up with, or the trusted souls who help us raise our kids and grandchildren, those who join us with scouts and soccer and such.

They know us. In front of us and behind our backs, some of these people will tell stories to publish abroad every inconsistent thing we do, just in case we might start becoming two-faced.

We get honest personal feedback on our choices, which often makes them better choices. Mistreat your spouse or children, or your own body for that matter, and if you don't hear about it from them, somebody who loves them will soon enough be telling you to stop it.

Likewise, good behavior is also more likely to get noticed and praised in a small-town fishbowl.

Life is slower, simpler, and less stressful in a small town. These three features of small towns resemble the aging process – and character builder. They make it easier for us to think first before we choose what we say or do, and that too makes for smarter choices.

By spending less time on the road, and driving at slow enough speeds to notice our surroundings more than the traffic, we have time to think and do something about the things that really matter.

Here we know our professionals as people. We do a better job of choosing our doctors and lawyers, teachers and realtors, counselors and contractors, pastors and plumbers.

They bless us personally as well as professionally, because we hear about them at the beauty shop, read about them in the paper, and run into them to say hello at the grocery, at the park, at church, or on the street.

They typically treat the whole person, which builds our character.

We get to observe how things work out over time. Because we are more likely to interact with multi-generational families, we see how family issues and stories play out across the years, how the blessings and curses of each individual life get passed down as the signature markings of future generations.

We see how gossip spreaders soon enough become gossip dreaders.

People come through for us when we need them in a small community. Funerals and hospital stays are not just bearable, they are meaningful and healing. And when it's our turn to be there for others, it's meaningful and healing for us, too.

We get to learn from the examples of lives that are fully lived out where we can see them. I have really enjoyed learning from those who have gone before me and passed beside me in this county, where I can see both their public and private lives.

You can think of your peers and forebears who have influenced and inspired you, but in addition to my family from childhood, I’ve been marked for the better by Bobby Stratton, Ruth Radcliffe, Deaderick Doak, Evan Settle, Jene Hedden, Howard Griffith, Bessie Langley, Thelma McGuire, Rod Cloyd, Neil Hackworth, Hubie Pollett, Bill McCarthy, Jay Hodge, and both the Ben Allen Thomases and the R.R. Van Stockums, just to name a few.

Next time I will talk about another thing I like about living in a small town – getting to know the delightful one-of-a-kind characters that are allowed to be themselves in this setting. I’ll bet you find yourself thinking about our local characters in some ways that will be new for you.


Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown (244-4407), Lexington, and Shelbyville (633-2860)