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“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
– Simone Weil
“When you belong to a place, its stories are in you.”
– Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
I hadn’t noticed the signs before. Granted, I’ve only lived in this small Midwest town for a little over a year now, but these little signs peppered throughout the community had gone unnoticed by me.
Until I started walking more. That’s what walking (or riding your bike) does. It helps you see things, notice and attend in a way that rushing around in a motorized vehicle just doesn’t allow. As someone has said, walking can take on the quality of poetry—what you thought you knew suddenly opens up with surprise. We learn to see and listen best with our feet.
So the signs. I never noticed them before, but here they are, white with lime green, the name of my town in bold navy letters. Then beneath the town name, this tagline: “Love where you live.”
That’s the phrase that struck me. It seems the reverse of the current trend of our hypermobile society, which is more about choosing to live where you love. According to one survey, two thirds of college-educated Millennials pick where they want to live, then they move there and try to find a job. Living in the place you love, it turns out, is more important to the next generation than a job or a paycheck.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Place matters. As Christians who embrace a robust doctrine of the incarnation, we must not dismiss the physicality of place and people. I get wanting to be in a place that you’re drawn to and which seems like a good fit.
But these signs scattered around my town suggest a different kind of mental and emotional framework. Instead of moving to a place you love, what if we chose to love the place where we are? What if finding a sense of belonging to a particular place has more to do with our decision to love that place than the characteristics or qualities of the place itself?
This is what Melody Warnick argues in her delightful book This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live (Penguin, 2016). Warnick writes about moving from the bustling city of Austin, Texas to the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia, where her husband took a faculty position at Virginia Tech. She explores her own struggle with identity and belonging in a new place, and the restlessness of the human heart which so often longs to be somewhere other than where we currently are.
Warnick introduced me to a new term that’s been helpful in my own transition to a new place. It’s called “place attachment,” which suggests “the affectionate, almost familial connection that can form between us and where we live.” It’s essentially what the poet W.H. Auden was getting at when he coined the charming term, “topophilia,” from the Greek topos, or place, and philia, meaning love. Put them together: love of place. Love where you live.
So how do you cultivate topophilia or “place attachment?” Warnick makes the point that while we may feel a more natural and immediate connection with some places, learning to love the place where you live is emotion and belief combined with action or behavior. “Put more simply,” she writes, “place attachment is a process. It’s the way we imbue places with meaning and memory.” (p.20).
And to do that takes time and patience. It also takes intentionality and getting involved, even if that means taking small steps. Don’t underestimate the power of small actions. “If you want to learn to love your town, I decided, you should act like someone who loves your town,” Warnick writes. (p.21)
How do you act like someone who loves your town? Warnick offers these ten practices: walk more, buy local, get to know your neighbors, do fun stuff, explore nature, volunteer, eat local, become more political, create something new, and stay loyal through hard times. She designates a chapter to each of these practices, and ends with a “Love Your City Checklist” of practical ideas for how to get into action around each one.
So I’m taking these practices on as a spiritual discipline in my own life and ministry, as I’m learning what it means to love where I live. I’ve been working on the first two—walk more (or ride my bike) and buy local. It’s been so good for my soul. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more things I hadn’t noticed, met more of my neighbors and learned more stories than I have since moving here a year ago.
And I’m starting to feel it more and more. Topophilia. Love for this place and these people. More like this is where I belong. In the words of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Life with the God we know in Jesus Christ is always lived in a community with other people, in a particular place.” The longer I’m here and the more I invest, the more I’m learning to say with the psalmist:
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:6)
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor Trinity Reformed Church. He lives with his wife, Tammy, and two daughters in the little town of Alton, next to Orange City, IA.
Great article, Brian, on the topic of contentment. Contentment, as you point out, can be narrowed down to the subject of finding great satisfaction in where you live. It can also be narrowed down to finding satisfaction in your work, or satisfaction with fellow employees (look for the good in them), or with your particular church, or with your spouse. Look for the good in life, and living becomes a joy. And yes, Brian, slow down to contemplate the good. There is so much of it. Just open your eyes. Philippians 4:11-12, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances….” Thanks, Brian, for the encouragement.
I like this post. Thanks Brian.
I am also thinking of the environmental implications of loving where you live. There is an old Indian proverb: If everyone sweeps in front of his/her own door, the whole world will be clean. The various threats that we now face are in part because we have not loved the places where we live deeply enough.
Beautiful reflection, Brian. I agree that “love where you live” is an appropriate way for us to think about the places where we find ourselves. However, I think there are limits to this advice. There are places that seem designed to impede our attempts to know or love our neighbors — places where it is impossible to walk anywhere outside your cul-de-sac or subdivision, where people’s houses, yards, and fences are designed to maximize privacy, where people drive long distances to go to work and have no interest in building community outside of the workday, and where there are few non-commercial common spaces. We lived in one such place in the suburbs of a major US city. We tried for 10 years to invest in that place, but struggled to find a sense of community or a feeling of belonging. Finally we decided that if our lives were going to be about relationships, that we needed to go to a place where deep relationships were more attainable. A selfish choice? Perhaps. But for us, it was a choice that better reflected our desire to know and to be known and our recognition that human beings are made for community.
Thanks for the good food for thought.
Brian, Thanks for sharing. Great signs for a community to fully embrace.
I love this book for some of the same reasons you mention. It’s been so helpful to me in my small town ministry.
Part of loving the place you live is that of immuration, of living within walls, within constraints. This is one of central themes in Benedict. We don’t need to go looking for some holy place, but discover that here is where God wants to meet us (and will).
And since I am by day somewhat political, another aspect of loving this place is the eschatological: we love this place because we have eyes to see what it might be, what it could be for our neighbors, how the poor will be lifted up, the homeless find a home etc. Without an eschatological vision, loving one’s place becomes a subtle or not-so subtle love of one’s self; bigger barns and all that.
The scandal in all this for me is the doubt that this really is the place that God wants to work, that this place, these people, this street are where God will be known. it takes a long time to make this rocky soil good and welcoming for the Gospel seed to flourish.