Do you love your hometown? Enough to change it when it needs changing? Enough to save it when it needs saving? Enough to praise it when it deserves praising?
I’ve been reflecting on this since I came out with my book, Our Town Oak Park. Some of you have had time to read it. I hope the rest of you find the time. Not so much for my sake. Not even for your sake.
For the sake of our town.
I don’t think you can change something, save it, or praise it unless you come to love it. That applies to this planet, this country, or our hometown.
In my experience, Oak Parkers are reluctant to praise their town. In some ways that’s good. Better to put our heads down and work to improve it than rest on our laurels. Praise without critique, after all, is shallow boosterism, overlooking the need for improvement. Yet criticism, if focused entirely on our shortcomings, overlooks our strengths.
We often act as if those were the only alternatives. If you praise, you must be a mindless booster. If you criticize, you’re the proverbial nabob of negativism.
The real challenge is doing both.
Is the glass half empty or half full? That classic trick question was devised by the half-full people to shame the half-empty crowd into being more positive. If you only focus on the fact that the glass is half-full, everything will be fine, they seem to be saying. But the half-empty side points out if you only focus on the half-full part, you’ll never notice the need for improvement.
The question locks us into an either/or dichotomy, but if you take the time to look at the glass, the whole glass, you’ll see that it’s both: half-full and half-empty. If you’re only focusing on half of the glass, you’re half-glassing it.
I see the half-full part as realized potential, the other half as room for improvement. I think of the non-filled part as the place where the spirit has room to breathe and move, ever beckoning us, drawing us forward to a fuller life.
But when I think of Oak Park, two other riddles come to mind, posed in an Iowa cornfield in the film Field of Dreams. The first is now a cultural cliché, “If you build it, he will come” (which later evolves into “they will come”). Oak Park, to its great credit, has built a town that is (relatively) safe for diversity. As a result, people of color, people of many sexual and gender differences, and people who generally value diversity have come to live in our (mostly) safe space. That’s the half-full part.
The second statement among the stalks, not as well known, urges us to “Go the distance.” That’s our room for improvement, our challenge, as we seek to turn our equity-aspiring town into an equity reality. It’s no good calling ourselves progressive if we aren’t making progress.
Many seem to think we should hold off on affirmations until Oak Park achieves real equity, but I disagree. We’ve not only earned some affirmation, the act of affirming itself is good for us.
Praise and affirmation, when based on what is real — always keeping in mind that we have further to go — is not only valid but necessary. Yet we have become a positivity-averse people, afraid to praise because we might seem naïve, baseless boosters, out of touch with the “real” world.
But nothing is so powerful as praise when it’s warranted. I think of Ted Lasso, the optimism savant in the show by that name, who is more than just a pie-eyed dreamer. He sees genuine potential in people, not some unreachable ideal. And because it’s based in the real, he helps those in his sphere of influence become the best versions of themselves, draws out the better angels of their nature.
When I wrote Our Town Oak Park my goal was to write a book that would make people feel good about themselves and about their town. I felt it was warranted as much as it was needed. I hope you’ll see it as representative of a new genre: Positive Realism. It also acknowledges room for improvement. How could it not? Positive Realism wants the glass to be full, even if our reach always exceeds our grasp. We can’t help wanting to go the distance.
I hope when you read this, if you read it, that you’ll re-evaluate where you live, see Oak Park as more than just the village of high taxes and too little parking.
I hope you’ll see this as a community you can take pride in, a town that has achieved much with much yet to come, a town you might someday come to love — if you don’t already love it.
And if you do love it, then you’ll want to get busy improving it.
Because here’s what I learned writing this book.
This town is worth it.