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Losing Ourselves

by Sterling Carter ’07
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These are just thoughts I’ve had recently as I’ve had time to myself to sort through all the noise that’s slowly been filtered out after nearly a year away from home.

Sterling Carter is serving two years with the Peace Corps, living in a small village in Niger. The following is an excerpt from the December 2008 entry of his blog:

Today, I came back from the gardens and sat with my neighbor kids, Razak and Uzefatu. I played a bit; I picked them up and swung them around by their arms until I was so dizzy that I fell down. They all laughed at me while I sat there with my head spinning. It’s such a small thing, infinitely small, but it makes me feel good. I feel like part of a community more and more every day that I’m in the village.

My friend, Moumouni, and I had a great conversation today that reflected a lot of my changing notions of community. I told him Niger may be hard, but that in some ways it’s far easier than America. Niger has security nets in the form of family and community, strong ties that America just doesn’t have enough of anymore. We don’t trust our neighbors. We trust strangers even less.

I’m lucky in a lot of ways because I came from a small town—Flora, Indiana. Everyone knows everyone there. It has both good and bad moments. There’s support at the cost of privacy. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.

I wonder, though, if this is so bad. Your neighbors watch over you. I think back to when I was a kid. I’d go over to my neighbor Nettie’s for cookies. Across the street, Ed would have his barbecue every summer. There was time down by the creek at Sue’s, the candy lady, and people and places that now exist only in the memories of a handful of people.

Times change. People move on. Flora is lucky to still have places like Payne’s Drug Store, Ayres’ hardware, Eikenberry’s Fine Furniture, Stephan’s IGA, Bishop’s Barber Shop, Jim Allen’s gas station, Parrett’s meat processing. These are all family-owned businesses.

But the owners are all of my parent’s age, and as far as I know, none of them has anyone who is serious about taking over the business once they’re gone.

What happens to our communities when those very few individuals holding them together are gone?

The only reason a lot of those places are still in business is customer loyalty, and many of those customers are older than the shopkeepers. What happens when those customers are gone? What becomes of Flora in 20 years?

I like that I can walk around Flora and talk to the people with whom I have business. Mike Bishop, Jim Allen, the Eikenberrys, they all know me, just like Moumouni, from whom I buy all my cloth in my market town, knows me. Every week I go to see him and talk with him, even if I don’t have any business. He’s my friend, and it’s always better to buy from someone you trust.

What happens to our communities when those very few individuals holding them together are gone?

In the end, we lose our sense of self, our sense of purpose, and our sense of worth. That Wal-Mart employee doesn’t care about me, and I don’t care about him. When we’re confronted daily by people who don’t care about us, people who see us only as a face, or worse, a body, we lose a little bit of our humanity. No wonder so many are depressed, anxious, and unhappy these days. No wonder we have a new drug every day for symptoms that you didn’t know you had.

When I look at all I’ve lost in America and all that I’ve gained coming here, or even just traveling about, I marvel at the deep hurt so many people feel in the modern world. With all the wonders that we’ve experienced with technology, I don’t know if we’re any better in spirit.