I am a rural American.
My grandfather was a pig farmer and coal miner. My dad grew up on that small family farm until he was signed by the Dodgers, but quickly put his baseball career on hold to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. I married a rural American from central Iowa. Arlene didn’t grow up on a farm but spent her summers detasseling corn. Her dad spent his career at the Rath Meat Packing House in Waterloo, Iowa, while her mother grew up living and working on her family dairy farm. We are rural Americans, through and through. On both sides of their family, our children are made from rural DNA.
Let’s be clear. Rural America is not just the Midwest or South. We are not talking about only Kentucky or West Virginia. Much of the states of New York, California and Illinois, homes to the three largest cities in the U.S.A, are considered rural. In fact, most of the landmass of the United States of America is rural.
A friend in Australia, Victor Perton, one of the most positive and optimistic men I know, asked me to respond to a recent study on the optimism of rural Americans and I thought I’d do so publicly. This study shows that with the hardships of rural America … even amidst the worries of trade wars and loss of international markets for our grains, 75 percent of those living away from the big cities are optimistic about their future and seem to have found happiness in their day-to-day lives. The optimism that rural Americans feel is not always shared in the big cities.
My oldest son, Toby, is an actor and producer, working in Los Angeles. We were in a coffee shop in Burbank, Calif., the day after George W. Bush was re-elected president. The talk of the stupidity of those in rural America was loud and rampant. A well-known comedian walked in. A small-town guy himself, he had shared in an interview a few weeks earlier that he supported “W” for re-election and the jeers and insults shouted at him forced him to turn and leave. Sitting next to us at a table was a well-known film producer that loudly proclaimed, “Those idiots between the coasts are dumber than their fence-posts and should not be allowed to vote!”
I wasn’t insulted. I was amused. As we were driving to our hotel, Arlene, who did not share my amusement, asked why I thought it was funny. I said, “Their claim of the stupidity of rural Americans exposes how little they know about life between the coasts and says more about them than us.”
Rural Americans do not vote as a block, but we do tend to be more traditional in our views. We have higher church attendance than those in urban settings and have a higher tendency to marry and remain married. Urban and rural, we are all shaped by our upbringing.
I am writing this column over Memorial Day weekend. From the time I was 12 until I was 18, I played snare drum in our local drum & bugle corps in our Memorial Day parade, then rushed out to the cemetery to play a drum roll during the reading of the names of the veterans who died and were buried in the cemetery that year. It was both a humbling experience and an honor to play a small role in the ceremony honoring those who had served. I was taught to stand as an American flag passes by and to say please and thank you. I still open the door for others and stop to help strangers change tires. My views and actions as an adult were shaped by my rural American upbringing.
I was raised reading and hearing stories of heroes. I hold our Founding Fathers, as well as other American heroes in the highest regard. Far from perfect, they all had their faults, but I believe their vision and heroism founded and shaped the greatest nation in the history of the world. Their negative outlook about our past drives their negative view of our current environment as well as the future. Yes, the stain of slavery on the fabric of our nation can never be washed away, but that is not the only chapter of our history. We have plenty to be proud of. We see our nation and world from a different perspective than our big-city counterparts. I don’t believe we are better, but we are different in our views of life.
The study showing rural Americans to be more optimistic should not surprise anyone paying attention. I love the big cities with the same passion that I love rural America. In my travels, I spend time in both. There is no question that rural Americans are more optimistic about our nation and world than our urban counterparts and it’s because we were raised to be so and believe the best is yet to come.
Optimism is a driver of not only success, but happiness.
Optimism is a choice. Why would you choose otherwise?