I turn 28 in a couple of weeks. I believe part of “growing up” into adulthood is that your perspective changes significantly on your upbringing and your hometown. For me, I have many wonderful memories about my hometown, Miamisburg, OH. At the same time, I now look at the place where I spent the bulk of my first 18 years and my heart aches a bit. In all honesty, my mind goes to an “Offspring” song. No not “Pretty Fly for a white guy,” and not “Keep em separated,” not even “Get a job,” but “The Kids aren’t alright….” Let me explain.
The song begins with “When we were young the future was so bright. The old neighborhood was so alive.” He looks back on his adolescence the same way we all do; we all are full of hope and we all “wanna be big big stars, but we got different reasons for that,” as another rock musician has put it. But then, the song identifies the issue that so many of us, and sadly I have realized about our hometowns, “Now the neighborhood’s cracked and torn. The kids are grown up but their lives are worn. How can one little street swallow so many lives?” And then the chorus plays, “Chances thrown
Longing for what used to be
Still it’s hard
Hard to see
Fragile lives, shattered dreams.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” was a very popular and successful book written by J.D. Vance who is from Middletown, OH, about 20 minutes from my hometown. In his memoir he identifies a lot of the issues I’ve noticed about Southwest Ohio hometowns. This month will be 10 years since I graduated High School and I have already lost close to double digits of middle school and high school friends to opioid addiction. I almost need a third hand to count the amount of football teammates who have not survived to my 10 year High School reunion.
The song continues by giving names to the broken, fragile lives… “Jamie had a chance, well she really did. Instead she dropped out and had a couple of kids. Mark still lives at home cause he’s got no job. He just plays guitar and smokes a lot of pot. Jay committed suicide. Brandon Od’d and died. What the hell is going on- the cruelest dream, reality.” The song points out that all these kids had big dreams when they were younger, but then reality happened to them and the result was far from glamorous. Songs like “The Kids aren’t alright,” and books like “Hillbilly Elegy,” do a really good job of pointing out some of the issues I’ve observed of my hometown, but I’m afraid we aren’t doing a good job of then answering the question that really matters when we observe hardships, “so what?”
We’ve identified the problems- drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, poverty, lack of opportunities, etc. But, we fall short in identifying the roots behind the problems. What I mean is this: what is it in people that leads to them being addicted to something, or to becoming abusers, or being held in poverty, or lacking opportunities? When you identify a problem in the U.S. we have a tendency of thrusting external solutions onto what is actually an internal issue. The problem and solution isn’t outside of ourselves, but actually within ourselves. And this isn’t new! These problems have always existed in my hometown, and in many others it’s just that when you’re a kid you’re naive and unaware of the issues but then you grow up and you can’t avoid the fact that things are not OK, because it’s slapping you in the face! You end up at your loved one’s funerals, and you see the harsh realities of life evolve over time; albeit this may happen while at a distance, but you still see it. And we all see it to an extent in our own lives. How many of us have had all of our dreams come true? How many of us haven’t felt the temptation of just going back to our hometowns and essentially giving in and settling for what’s comfortable to us?
It’s very easy for us to look at our hometowns and to identify the problems, but it is much more difficult for us to think critically and reason about what may be an actual solution. People who aren’t from Miamisburg, OH would probably look at my hometown and suggest “we need to bring jobs back,” Delphi, Fedex, NCR, Appleton, GM, and so many other industries have left and the way to fix people’s lives is to bring back those sorts of jobs. People believe that money will fix the people living in my hometown, but I simply say “really? Do you really believe money makes people better?” So, people try and say things like, “we need more parks,” or “we need to build up the downtown,” and what they are really saying is “we need an external solution to an internal problem.” People try to thrust sociology and psychology onto why individuals are hurting themselves and also other people. So, they blame it on their upbringing, some supposed psychological issue, and some sort of shared personality trait. But blaming your brokenness, your sin, on something outside of yourself is a futile endeavor.
I know I don’t hold a popular opinion on this, however, the reason why we grow up and realize “The kids aren’t alright” has nothing to do with the problems we identify over time and it has everything to do with sin. Why do we have broken dreams? Why do we miss chances? Why do we hold onto debilitating nostalgia? Why do we believe the past was so bright and the future is so dark? Why do we remember an alive past and a dead future? Why do we blame our problems on other things and other people? Why do we believe we should try and fix our issues with outside support? It’s because we have things backwards and upside down. As long as you believe “the best is in the past,” you will give up and essentially go through the motions in your life. The light in your home will be out, and combined with your entire neighborhood, your collective neighborhood light will be so dim you can barely see it.
So, when I think of my hometown, and I read “Hillbilly Elegy,” and I listen to “The Kid’s Aren’t Alright,” how do I suggest we move forward? Well, I believe we need to re-establish the source of true hope and move forward in light of the upside-down nature of the Gospel of Jesus. I understand this is a miracle, but I’m suggesting that the Gospel is what really changes hopelessness, brokenness, and dreamlessness which has come about as a result of personal rebellion against God-the Bible calls this sin. Think of it like this…. When a hometown is low on hope, character, morality, or whatever then it’s like you have a collection of houses with no light on. When an individual meets Jesus and begins to live for Him, it’s as if a light has been turned on in one home. This person knows the best lies ahead, because Jesus will return and establish the new heavens and the new earth, so this person is not living in the past, they aren’t lingering on broken dreams, they aren’t concerning themselves with missed opportunities, but they’re daily asking God to establish His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven! Well, then this person is also leading their own family in their home to do the same! Let’s suppose this family then has an impact on neighbors, and school-fellows, and co-workers, well then the light of that home will inevitably spread to others! Let’s suppose an entire neighborhood begins to light up! Well, out of the small corner of one hometown comes hope and true change, because the change is internal rather than external; the solution is external because it’s God the Holy Spirit changing their hearts, but the change then comes from within the community rather than from some outside influence like the government, or scholars, or money.
I realize that what I’m suggesting takes time. I understand that people like quick fixes, but quick fixes also have quick failures, and this causes generational darkness and hopelessness. What restores brightness and hope that lasts past this generation? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing. When I think of my hometown, and I think of so many others just like Miamisburg, OH, and I think about how many people I’ve heard talk about the place I love as if it were some governmental project I actually get angry. We’re dealing with real people, real lives, real tragedies, real sin, and we do not need some academic or political response to what is really a heart issue. If we are ever going to give broken people and places true and lasting hope we must give them Jesus.