Why You Should Stay in Your Hometown
by Justin Hannegan
On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born. —T.S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture
Americans have never learned to cherish permanence. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that an American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and abandon it just as the trees are bearing fruit; and he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest. Things have not changed. Today, according to demographers, Americans move on average once every five years. The home is now a temporary stopping place rather than a permanent habitation.
By some rare chance, I escaped this rush of mobility. I grew up on street where my family has lived for four generations and in a city that was home to my ancestors before the Civil War. As a Benedictine monk, I will eventually take vows to live out the rest of my life in the same city, on the grounds of the Abbey of St. Mary and St. Louis. When I die, my body will be buried in the community’s cemetery just beside the abbey walls. I have inherited and now freely embrace a wonderful gift: permanence. I have learned, furthermore, that permanence is not merely a matter of taste—something to be embraced by the sedentary and eschewed by the restless—but a deep societal value. It is the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture. I will argue, therefore, that the American disregard for permanence is not merely a national idiosyncrasy. It is a defect in our national character.
The first benefit of permanence is the preservation of the family. Today, our understanding of the family has been winnowed down to a household composed of two parents and their children (under the best of circumstances). But this is a mutilated understanding. The family is larger. It includes ancestors, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and posterity, as well as parents and their children. Staying permanently in one place allows a wide range of family members to preserve a common life. It allows them to work, worship, and spend leisure time together. Permanence also preserves, through continuity of place and the memories that inhabit a place, the link between ancestors and posterity. In short, permanence helps prevent us from devolving into our current situation, where family members are scattered at great distances across a continent, often know each other only vaguely as acquaintances, consider themselves exempt from all claims of duty to one another, and have forgotten their common history.
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