Life is sometime hard for people who live in rural areas. Appalachians face hardship from a number of areas. Having come to live in the shelter of mountains, the people have found isolation and “apartness” to be an unswerving fact. Life is harder in the isolation. Choices have been limited for work and family provision. Those choices have usually involved exposure to danger as well.
In the midst of this environment, the people of the mountains have come to adopt a hardness of character sometimes described as “fatalism.” They often run up against limitations they have little resources to overcome, so they accept them as facts of life. If I can’t change my world, I have to accept it. That is fatalism. Along with this experience is the theological viewpoint of five-point Calvinism taught in some of the churches known as “hard-shell.” One of the teachings is that you are either chosen, or elected (by divine caprice) to salvation, or you are chosen for a life that will end in eternal destruction. No gray area, just either/or. Not much anyone can do about it. If you’re elected, you will know it through divine revelation, if not, you will have no experience of faith. Thus is born the spiritual support for fatalistic outlook. If God doesn’t choose me for salvation, I can only accept the pain and agony of life’s ups and downs. Is there any wonder that so many today have turned to prescription pain medication to douse the sting of their reprobate state?
I overheard a conversation in a doctor’s office waiting room at Richlands, Virginia. A woman asks another woman about her health. Describing her problems in detail, she summarizes her condition with these words: “Law, honey, don’t ever start going to the doctor; if you start, you’ll never stop.” Studies have shown that it isn’t lack of access to adequate medical care that effects the health of Appalachians, but a general resistance to it. Folks don’t think they can do anything about poor health. Doctors just want their money. This is deep-set cultural outlook. It has to be understood if anyone plans on trying to address it. It is theological, philosophical, and experiential in the lives of Appalachians.
When someone makes choices described by others as sin, it isn’t seen as a moral lapse so much as a sign that they are not saved. If you aren’t part of the elect, why do you need to change your ways? You can’t earn salvation by doing good, so why do good? It is hard to understand grace when you are taught this dichotomy of saved and damned. Churches who preach this don’t offer salvation with an altar call. You will know, they posit, when you are saved. Otherwise, you don’t belong, can’t be found worthy, are left to a life of sin that will lead to death. Is this fair? No. Is it biblical? Not really, although certain passages of scripture are relied upon to shore up this thought process. Is it a real problem? Yes. It stands as the greatest challenge to freedom of thought and positive, life-giving spirit. There is another way than living with fatalism, but it is difficult to shake when you’ve been taught, and there is so much of it in the culture.
Death is also experienced with hardness. It is a fact of life that “it is appointed once for a man to die, then afterward the judgment.” Death is news that travels fast. There must be fear related to it because so much cultural respect surrounds the rituals of response to death. Word of death elicits acts of neighborly kindness. Food is sent over. People stop what they’re doing to visit the home of the bereaved. Work stops. There are certain expectations as to how the survivors are supposed to act. Whether someone is saved or not is an issue of great impact. It hasn’t been long since the tradition was that someone’s body was supposed to be out two nights “lying a-corpse.” This means, they showed the body in a time of visitation two days or nights. There was a time that certain people waited up with the body throughout the night while others slept. Then on the third day, the funeral would be held. This is with open casket. After the funeral, the attendees file past the casket for one last look. The family goes by last, often wailing and mourning loudly, touching the corpse, and convulsing with tears. They might even open the casket at the grave after processing together. The grieving mourners watch the casket as it is lowered in the ground, dirt placed over top of it and mounded over it. There was a time when shelters were built over the graves. Flowers were sometimes planted over the grave, a stone erected when the family could afford it, and visits on “decoration day,” and at other holidays throughout the year. In several cases, no stone was ever placed on the grave, due to the lack of resources in the family, and the grave is unmarked, and in time forgotten.
The comfort of family, friends, and the beauty of mountains, serves to ease the pain of life. Walking with God, living life in the Spirit, taking care of your surroundings and your health, and your loved ones, is the antidote to life’s troubles. The cycle of seasons gives credibility to the hope we have in resurrection. After every winter, there is spring. Internalized, we Appalachians look to the spring of God’s goodness to bring forth new life in us.