Dear Graduate: Don't Be Afraid To Leave Your Hometown

We can acknowledge the past, honor and celebrate it, but we shouldn’t get stuck there.
“Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by your house and I pick you up. And we go out we have a few dri
“Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by your house and I pick you up. And we go out we have a few drinks, and a few laughs and it’s great. You know what the best part of my day is? It’s for about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb to when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there.”

This is particularly difficult subject for me to talk about because it’s so close to my heart. I love my hometown. It’s given me more than I deserve—the best of friends, a safe and loving community, a great education.

But lately I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it’s time to leave.

I can’t help but ask, “What’s keeping me here?”

Several years ago when three of my best friends decided to move away from our hometown—one to Colorado, one to New York City and the other to California—I couldn’t understand why. I wanted things to go back to the way they were. I wanted us to be us again. It was selfish, admittedly, but I didn’t care.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave a place that had meant so much to them, to us. We were as close as family. All the memories, the tears and laughter. “What are they running away from?” I thought.

But as time moved on, I began to realize something.

In many ways, our hometown is an embodiment of who we once were. It represents our old identity. It was also our nest, the incubator that helped raise us.

Stay there too long though, and we can get stuck.

As sweet as those memories were and as much as our hometown has helped us become the person we are, that’s all in the past now. We can acknowledge the past, honor and celebrate it, but we shouldn’t get stuck there.

And we’ve all met someone who’s gotten stuck there.

I’ve seen firsthand what can happen to a person when they can’t move on, when they don’t want to leave. It’s the townie that never could quite outgrow his or her beloved town. When you speak to this person you start to get the feeling that he or she is essentially the exact same person they were thirty years ago.

I started to look around my own hometown and thought how easy it would be to get stuck here. It would be so easy to grow old without growing up. Going to the same bars with the same people; telling the same jokes, doing the same drugs, and ultimately going the same direction—nowhere.

I need more for myself. I know that if I’m going to grow into the person I want to be, then I have to leave. There’s no way around it.

I have to come to terms with the fact that, while I’m so grateful for it, my hometown can only take me so far.

Granted, not everyone who stays in their hometown becomes a townie. I’ve met people who have lived in only one town or city and are content, happy and living meaningful lives.

But for most of us, our hometown is like a lens that colors the way we see everything. We grew up with. But we haven’t experienced life without it, so naturally we assume that’s the way the world is.

We aren’t even aware we are perceiving through this lens until we take it off. Until we step outside of it. Then we realize that, as beautiful as that lens is, it’s not the whole picture. Not even close. There’s more, infinitely more, to ourselves and to life than what we perceived through that lens.

Now I feel so strongly that there’s more than just a new city or town out there, there’s a new me out there too. A new way of viewing life. A new life beyond the town lines that once defined me, the lines that I used to cherish.

And I can’t help but feel as if being here in my hometown is holding me back. I’ve had the great fortune of having an amazing past—a past full of experiences and friends that many people aren’t fortunate enough to have.

But the truth about the past is that it pales in comparison to the potential the lies before us.

And I think we only get to experience that if we’re willing to let the past go; if we’re willing to lean into the unknown. Otherwise we become stale. We never discover new vistas and horizons, not just in the world but within ourselves.

Human beings aren’t supposed to stay the same. We’re supposed to grow.

Not that we have to move to a big city, or across the country or to a new continent (like myself). Maybe it’s just a new town. A new town with new people, new experiences. A chance for a new beginning. Anything that will shake the cobwebs of the past off of us.

That’s what growing up is all about isn’t it, new beginnings? Adulthood is an opportunity to define ourselves on our own terms. 

I see moving away as a chance to set the tone for my own life. With my own values, my own standards.

Because each stage of life requires a new version of us. Not that we change completely so as to be unrecognizable. But in order to grow, old versions of ourselves need to be left behind. Just like outgrowing clothes that no longer fit us.

And quite frankly, it can be difficult to do that when you’re surrounded by everything that reminds you of who you used to be.

The truth is, sometimes we have to leave. Sometimes we have to be willing to leave what we’ve known. We have to be willing to leave some of the ways we’ve known ourselves, and the ways others have known us.

It took me a few years, but I finally realized that my friends weren’t running away from anything.

They were running toward something.

They were leaving behind who they used to be, and running toward who they wanted to become.

Now it’s my turn to do the same.

It was heartbreaking to see some of my friends leave. But in hindsight, I’m glad they didn’t come back. Because as much as I miss them, nothing would be more painful than to see them stagnate in this old farm town.

Leaving is bittersweet, but the sweetness of seeing my friends grow is well worth the bitterness of not having them within a two-minute drive.

Lately, it’s been making me so happy to hear that someone left this town and is enjoying their life elsewhere. I’ll smile and think to myself, “Yes, they got out—they made it.”

And I can’t help but feel a little heavy hearted when I see those I grew up with, with so much potential, still here. Still doing the same old thing.

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve outstayed my welcome here. I think many of us have.

At a certain point, as great or terrible as it was, everyone needs to leave their past in the rearview mirror.

Because there’s more out there for us. Maybe more than we could ever imagine.

Besides, it doesn’t have to be forever. You can always move back.

But I wouldn’t hold it against you if you chose not to.

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