Blogger Shannan Martin chronicles her move from the upper-middle class comforts of suburbia to a working class town most would classify as undesirable. She show how to find purpose where you are, no matter what the neighborhood looks like.
My Personal Ordinary Place
I live in a small town in Ohio. If I had been asked at age 18 where I saw myself, this town would not have even made the list. It was such an impossibility to me that the thought never crossed my mind that twenty years later, I would be here. I had big plans. I would go to college. Have a successful career. Have a few babies and a perfectly lovely home. If not wealth, at least comfort would surely be in my future.
When I said “yes” to the man I’m married to, he had a house in this small, dying town. The blue collar jobs were leaking like a sieve and crime was as common as unemployment. Yes, I wanted to marry him. But I certainly did not want to live there. I made him promise that we would leave soon.
After a few years, we decided we wanted to have kids- but not in that town! I again made him promise that we would start looking to move so we could start a family in a suitable neighborhood. One with great school and tree lined drives. Ones where I can send those restless children to the park at the corner without a worry.
But time continued to slip by. I really wanted that little baby and said we’d do it. We just HAD to move before he started school. This precious little bundle should not have to go to school with kids who can’t afford school supplies and know the f-bomb before they can read.
Now, that baby is twelve. He has three younger siblings. They all attend a school in this small run-down town, whether I like it or not. There are times I’m so resentful that I’m still here. I wanted bigger and better. I wanted the best for my kids, and if I’m honest, for myself too. I tell my husband, let’s at least move one town over, across the river (maybe that’s our area’s version of the right and wrong side of the tracks).
Instead, my kids have watched a man fall down in front of our house, so drunk he couldn’t catch himself before his face smashed into the pavement. They’ve heard first graders talking about sex in the filthiest of language. They know to stay away from the house just down the street because it’s falling in from neglect. They’ve heard us talk in hushed tones about the drug arrest that took place half a block away. It’s not at all what I pictured for them.
The Choice to Find Purpose Where You Are
I know I can choose to be happy. I can decide to be satisfied right where I am today. But letting go of some of those idealized dreams is a daily and difficult chore. I want to scream, “This is not what I signed up for! I wanted so much more!!” Honestly, I still want the white picket fence and the clean, safe, well maintained playground. I still want the top rated school and the unique extracurricular activities.
But can I accept that is not our life? Can I be happy right here and right now, in this town I’m watching die before my eyes?
Perhaps, as Martin suggest in this book, I can find and fulfill my purpose here in this town I never wanted to be part of. Maybe the reason I’m here is not because the job market sucks or my husband is being lazy about applying for good opportunities. Maybe we are right where we are supposed to be and can find purpose, even here.
How to Invest in My Community
But how do I do this? How do I commit myself to this town? It’s people? It’s messes? Where do I start finding the small things I can make better by being available? Where do I start when everything seems to be falling down?
First, we have to notice that there is need all around us. If we live in the wealthiest California suburb, the poverty of inner cities or the blue-collar town of the mid-west, there is need. People are lonely and hurting and empty. They just express it in different ways. Taking the time to notice and invest in people right where we are will help us to feel a connection to the community.
Shannan started by walking her children to school each morning. Instead of hurrying with her face toward the sidewalk or isolated in a world of noise through a phone, she looked around. She really looked and saw the kids who missed the bus or the women who obviously didn’t make it home last night. We’re good at ignoring these unpleasant sights. We need to be good at seeing what is really there.
Love to Find Purpose Where You Are
Loving like a neighbor is opening ourselves to relationships with others. Stepping out can be difficult for those of us who are introverts, but creating community requires some bravery. Some vulnerability. And the result is not always spectacular. But be open to the possibility and people will know who they can trust with their own vulnerability.
Have an open door policy, where people are welcome to come and sit and feel the joy of company. We have made hospitality into a gift that only certain people have. Conveniently, these people also have clean homes and five-star cooking skills. Instead, adopt Shannan’s concept of hospitality. “There is room for you here, next to me. I receive you with gladness and offer my truest self. Here, we draw nearer to each other, seeking refuge from the crush of life. Here, we are safe. We are warm. We are free.” If we can offer these sacred words to a neighbor, we can practice hospitality.
Work to Find Purpose Where You Are
More than offering a cup of coffee or a listening ear, we have to fully invest in the lives around us. There must be space in our lives for other people and for meeting their needs. “The way we spend our love is the way we spend our lives. Do we care enough to love those around us as though we really belong to each other?” Shannan asks.
So often, I resist belonging to this town. I don’t want to claim it as my own and I certainly don’t want it to claim me. What would it say about me if this town defined who I am? Nothing I want to be associated with. In those words I should be embarrassed to type, I am forsaking community for myself and my neighbors. We all lose when one person refuses to participate and that person has been me.
This book challenged me to think- what if it changed? What would happen if I kept my front door open. What if I stopped to talk to the man sitting on the porch. What if we invited the kids playing in the street to come into the yard. What if my family could be just what they need today. Am I brave enough to do it? Can I be so bold as to act on this love?
Making Changes to Find Purpose Where You Are
The first thing from this book I plan to apply is “beginning to live as though there’s no such thing as other people’s children might be our most critical, significant contribution to the flourishing of our world.” Some of the kids in our neighborhood need a refuge. It could be my house. I could be the person who has apples on the table even though my kitchen floor has dirty footprints.
Shannan’s many stories of hope and purpose are just what I needed to remember that I can find purpose where I am. Investing in my community, even when it’s not the place I thought I would be, is my God-given purpose. Offering hope and love to those around us is our purpose. To love better, to give more, to support and encourage, to invest, to see change, to cry with someone, to work for change, to laugh in joy- this is our purpose. Our highest, hardest, most satisfying purpose.
Buy a copy of this book for yourself (affiliate link):