Election Lessons from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”

This is the way were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.— The Stage Manager, Our Town

The facts of this election are: it all depends on where you live, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Some people live where they live and that’s that. They were born there, live there, exist there. They know their neighbors, the guys at the bar, and the people that fix their cars. They nod to the grocery store clerk, or the dispensing nurse at he local clinic. They belong to the right religion (whatever the religion) and may be military, white collar, blue collar. Just the like the family next door. Ya gotta get along.

Some people never leave town. Oh, maybe a trip to the shore, or the dunes, or to Grandma next state over. But they know what they know and they like it like that. The status quo is comfortable. 

Some people do venture out. The adventurous, ambitious, or the victims of circumstance.

I spent my first nine years in New York City, Washington Heights. As the oldest child, I had the most exposure to the neighborhood. The neighborhood was mixed— Irish Catholic, Jewish, African-American, Greek, Italian. We mixed in the playgrounds or playing hopscotch or stickball in the streets. We were left out by ourself to play and explore. One of my best friends was the eldest of what would be 11 kids. The other was a girl who lived with her grandmother in my great aunt’s tenement building. At 5 years old we kissed on the first floor staircase. 

It was a real melting pot, in people and experiences.

But the suburbs called, and at 9 years old we moved to a “development” in New Jersey.  So did many other families.

This too was a melting pot, but of an upwardly ambitious people.

Post war brought immigrants from Germany and China to our block and we were likewise a melting pot of Irish, Jewish, Italian, Hungarian and more. Our universe was two square blocks, unless you owned a bike and even then you went at most a mile.

As I got older the girl I pursued lived a block away. My best friend was a block away. We swam in a friend’s pool a block away, I babysat for people on our block. Maybe block is the wrong word— a New York City word— probably “street” is better.

“Religiously, we’re eighty-five percent Protestants; twelve percent Catholics; rest, indifferent.”– Editor Webb, Our Town

In the suburbs, my brother and sister and I went to Catholic School and Catholic Church, just as I had in New York. Religions are small towns. You belong, until you leave.

I was involved. A crossing guard. A CYO (high school Catholic club) volunteer. CYO Drama Society. Running the dances in the grade school auditorium. The CYO bowling league. Even going to a CYO leadership conference in New York.

But I was kicked out of CYO when I won a 1st place acting award in the regional CYO one act play festival. I had gone to grade school in a nearby city catholic school, so continued on in CYO activities there, since they were the people I new. 

But in our suburb, a new Catholic Church and school had been built, and I apparently was expected to belong to that. So a priest objected and that was that. Exiled.

They lost a Catholic that day.

So what does this have to do with the election?

It is about belonging to something. It is about exposure to something new. It is about accepting the other. 

Despite predictions of blowouts and flipping the majority, we’re finding that there is comfort in the now, not the new.

Just because you and I are adventurous, doesn’t mean that Joanie Ernst can’t be re-elected. She’s the devil they know.

In our town, we like to know the facts about everybody — Stage Manager, Our Town

Even if facts aren’t the facts. Joe Biden is not a socialist by any means. But you’d have to do some reading to know that. Hearing it from Trump is anything but reliable. 

But even in liberal New Jersey, Southern counties, far away from New York or Philadelphia, went for Trump. There’s not a lot of mobility there, nor exposure to anything except “what we know”.

I met my wife, who is Jewish, at a CYO dance. Catholic Youth Organization. We didn’t card religion at the door. 

I thank my “environment” growing up for the way I think today. My parents were republicans and their friends were, for the most part, republicans. I felt liberal before college, but exposure to a wide range of thinking and activity at Marquette in Milwaukee cemented those feelings, and the people I knew and were involved with shared those feelings. 

That too was its own small town.

There are reason why the cities are liberal and the small towns conservative. Environment. Exposure. Engagement. Education.

Change comes hard. For some people, it never comes.

Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” — Mrs. Gibbs, Our Town

Environment. 

We are all products of our environment. Our parents. Our teachers. Where we live. Who we know. Our religious beliefs. Our learned behaviors. 

Exposure. 

Do we move beyond our four-block radius? Do we travel? Do we read? Who are our friends? Are we male, female, or LGBTQ? Are we exposed to different beliefs, accepts, dispositions? Do we subscribe to one religion or are we tolerant? 

Engagement. 

Do we engage with the outside world? Do we listen and tolerate other opinions? Or do we belong a cult that restricts our beliefs to what “they” accept? Do we read editorials or books? Or listen to podcasts? 

Education.

Do we pursue education? High School? College? Home Schooling? Do we further our education when we hit a roadblock? 

Do we research? Do we read? Or do we look down on education and reject it for ourselves or our children? My father couldn’t afford college but he made up for it is whole life by always having a book in his hands when he traveled (he was a traveling salesman and knew people in half the United States).

“The Crofut Farm;… United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe; The Mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope.”— Emily, Our Town

It’s a big world. And we are citizens of the world. Realizing there are other people on this earth with a different set of environments and needs is essential to being a responsible citizen. It’s not just “our town”.

This is what is lacking in much of our population. Not that I blame anyone. Without the environment and exposure the engagement and education do not come easily. 

So the blow-out wasn’t a blow-out and the Senate didn’t flip. But Biden may still win, and he’s a guy that feels other people. It’s time that all of us feel other people. It’s hard because we’re isolated. I can’t go to thanksgiving this yer for fear of the virus. But I can call in, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, or whatever. 

Be patient, and take it all in stride. Tomorrow is another day.

“Everybody’s resting in Grover’s Corners. Tomorrow’s going to be another day. You get a good rest too. Good night.”The Stage Manager, Our Town

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