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Appalachian Spirituality: “What is Proper?”


This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).

I’ve been haunted for years by the question “what is proper?” It’s always in my mind when I enter a room. I immediately size up my competition, the areas of activity, the location of threats, and the people of influence and power. You’ll never notice this because I do it rather intuitively and quite quickly. I can sniff out influence like a bloodhound catching a scent.

I also stand in the back of my church here in Ashland. I’m always surveying the people who come for worship. I notice where certain people sit. I analyze, in excruciating detail, the song lyrics. My mind is always giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I will catch myself over-analyzing a song or a sermon topic and immediately scold myself. You’ll never notice this because I do it rather intuitively and quite quickly. I can critique myself with the guilt of a Jewish mother.

Both scenarios revolve around what is expected of me in a room. Both involve performance. Both revolve around a daily anxiety about my behavior: what is “proper?”

The question is misleading because “proper” is shaped by context but a location or person is the last thing running through my mind when I internally ask, “What is proper?” Proper has really become a way for me to maintain my distance so I can uphold my control.

Appalachian folks “will go to great lengths to keep from offending others, even sometimes appearing to agree with them when in fact we do not. It is more important to get along with one another than it is to push our own views” (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 171-172). I will develop an appearance (an image) to control the relationship. Proper becomes the catch-all term for my control and safety in a room.

Appalachian culture is largely comprised of three distinct people groups—English, Scotch-Irish, and German. These groups are wildly different in some ways but their desire to control their surroundings makes them kindred spirits. I feel these impulses at play in me constantly.

  • When I shut down in conversation because the conversation’s tone and/or content was not proper (read “inclusive”). [ENGLISH]
  • When I lash out in a moment of rage because your perspective or argument was not proper (read “threatening”). [SCOTCH-IRISH]
  • When I listen to your perspective and then bulldoze the conversation with what is proper (read “my way”). [GERMAN]

That little word, “proper,” gets a lot of air time in my head.

This is where all three groups escape the reality of the moment. They try to keep life at arms-length to escape pain through the myth of control. They wear their emotions on their sleeves always slightly on-edge and afraid of being left alone in their pain. They listen for a time and then dominate.

Instead of encountering the beauty and meaning of life, both groups have a tenuous relationship with their what is proper, dutiful, and right. Whether they control their outer world by making the case that they have it worse than anyone else or believe that people need to take more control of their inner-world—all see “proper” as a burden to their existence. Appalachians see life as simply about survival. Survival is the proper response to life. Tolerate as you must and survive.

Appalachians are tolerant of personal differences. When respecting the right of other people to be themselves, we expect them to respect our right to be ourselves. (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 178-179)

The haunting truth of Appalachia in my quest for proper is that while I tolerate a lot of perspectives and people, I missed the school talk on what the standard of “proper” ought to be. Like a moving target, it’s difficult to take aim. Proper with a standard produces civility and frameworks for dialogue. Proper without a standard produces anxiety, control and legalism. Jones alludes to my perennial anxiety. How can I be proper when my definition of “proper” signifies so many things? “Proper” names an identity struggle—how can people respect me when naming my identity sometimes feels like nailing Jello to the wall?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

Lord, crucify the “proper” in in me so that I may be resurrected as one proper to you.

That little word, “proper,” gets a lot of air time in my head.

Next Post: “False Humility vs. True Humility”

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