I have heard people say a great deal of late, particularly in those academic circles I now spend the most time socializing with, on the subject of “culture shock,” and that not of culture shock between really different cultures, but merely between East and West Coast and the Midwest or (worse still, in the speaker’s view) the South (all referencing regions of a single nation, the United States).
Of course I am just as bad about underlining the virtues of the Midwest or South in contrast with the East and West. I have as bad a taste in my mouth over the unacceptably selfish attitutes and lack of hospitality or genuine caring of the New Yorker as he has over the indolence or ignorance of “that place in the middle.” We mutually regard each other as somewhat unthinking and stuck in our ways: the Easterner or Westerner sees me as crude, naïve, and dependent on provincial outdated values, while I regard him as dependent on the “concrete jungle,” unable to sustain himself, or to rest from the beehive in solitude, or be unafraid of dark or treed forest because he is a spoiled child who has not yet ever faced himself Alone, and sought out and wrestled what that meant.
But my experience in moving to the East Coast from Somewhere in the Middle (as they fondly suppose it is all much more similar across the Middle than on the Edges) is that if you mean the proper way to bake cornbread, or how comfortable you may be in popping into your neighbor’s house while he is away from home without prearrangement, then yes, there are many differences. If you mean fundamental and rockbed principles of human nature, then I must say I have found the old Persian proverb to be truest: “The sky is the same color wherever you go.”
People used to believe there was such a thing as human nature; essentially bad or essentially good, they might argue over, and abominable ideas existed about this or that or the other people being a degree “less than human,” as Darwin and Nietsche and so many others set out to demonstrate--but there existed such a thing, a commonality that made a human a person, and in varying ways and times men and women have set forth their hands to define it in broad but exact scope, in order to derive due respect for the dignity which humanity as a state of being gives an individual as much as a group as much as any other group.
I cannot say that I find the recognition of such a state as very prominent in these academic minds, any more than at large among the uneducated… but again, what one sees is similarity more than dissimilarity. When I am not defensive or pugnacious about my roots, I must own that the same sins and the same problems among most and the same virtues among a few, exist there as exist here or anywhere else I have been; that where the crime rates and generally accepted selfishness have not caught up may really be because a region is behind the times, and not actually because the people in a particular place are en masse truly better or better motivated than anywhere else, and wouldn’t like to go farther. The teens and preteens, where one looks for the signs of what the next generation is to be like, are fairly identical from Missouri to New York, and beyond, to Poland, when I traveled there.
Everywhere people make distinctions between each other which are unimportant and wholly miss what distinctions ought to be important. Tolkien’s elves laugh at the hobbits, and tease them: they say that all hobbits are alike, and the hobbits indignantly insist they are not, which the elves cheerfully and carelessly disarm with the comment that to sheep, other sheep must look different also.
So it is. The hobbits are right: being a little and rural people has no less its set of distinctions in society and custom, its little unique foibles and enjoyments, and has no lesser right of being acknowledged and respected than anybody else’s… that more people live elsewhere is no argument against the validity or importance of the culture of fewer members. But holistically the elves are correct in their assessment also, that there is such a thing as hobbit-nature (or human nature) which makes them much more like each other than like anything else in Middle Earth.
The sky is the same color wherever you go, or as it says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. No one really invents any new people: the more things change, the more they stay the same. People do not invent new sins, new pleasures, new values: you can always hunt in old books and find the roots of whatever the “new ideas” are currently. And people are always longing, at all times: whether it be for the “new people” or “the other places,” or something else that gets attached to it.
When I taught school, the middle school girls were in awe over my new shoes for a while because I bought them on a trip to Chicago: the fact that I had bought them at a chain store which any of them might have done identically in rural Missouri, and that it was a pair of shoes more or less like their own, did not occur to them as specially detracting from the shoes’ aura of otherness. But as funny as it seemed to me, if I transpose the feeling to any object from the UK, and most particularly from those hallowed halls in Oxford, suddenly my own imagination is seized in a similar way.
After all, one of those human qualities is a looking-off, a seeking, a longing for the beyond which we imagine on earth and yet never quite discover where we are, for it is not on earth in the first place. It is a harder quality to see at times in the urbane peoples of… everywhere, really, whether “urbane” means Kraków, or London, or New York… because among the untravelled and rural peoples, the Otherness longed for can simply and easily be imagined to exist somewhere, in a city or a bigger city or another continent, but somewhere. Among the more travelled and widely experienced urbane peoples, the place is further off, or else the Otherness desired is a state of society that they seek to bring about… but the desire of the intangible is there, all the same.
Shame, though, to us, if in our own knowledge of the lack of the Otherness where we are, we find a contempt of those people who imagine it might be… for imagining ourselves any closer to that Belonging Elsewhere which makes us strangers and pilgrims on this earth, than our neighbors, merely because we have been more places where we know it isn’t. For the sky is the same wherever you go: humans all long for Something Else, and still however much they experience, generally suppose they will find the Something Else here on earth under some other conditions, without ever drawing the rather obvious conclusion that we were all made for something beyond what we see, and that is what we long for.
Yet we express contempt each for the other's differentness, despite not being what we desire ourselves. Human nature, again; for while I know the Easterner has not got the Holy Grail of existence, I know the Midwestern culture has not got it either, and yet the easterner and I are both likely to behave and speak to each other loftily, as though we had. We want the Eternal; the Creator in whose likeness we are made; but we also want to be more special than our neighbors. On one hand we crave the significance of the created purpose, the inspired soul which can only be ours if it belongs as a human property given from Above to each and every member of the human race; and on the other hand, we desire it, in our petty vanities, somehow to be more significantly ours than anyone else's. It is a rather silly contradiction of human nature when you come to think about it...