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In Michigan, small things add up to life writ large

Michiganders lament the brain drain that sees some of our best and brightest young people fleeing the state for supposedly bigger and better things on the coasts and in major cities. I was one of those young people (though I am dubious as to whether my leaving caused much, if any, drain on Michigan's intellectual capital), who thought the best path forward was to head out to one of the coasts and pursue my destiny.

After nine years on the East Coast, eight of them in Washington, D.C., my wife and I recently came home to Grand Rapids. Our experience has given me some insight on how we might attract young people back to Michigan — and how we might convince them never to leave in the first place.

There are all sorts of incentives we could think up to keep young people here or draw them back. Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative was just one. While such projects aren’t unimportant, I think there is a more fundamental change we need to make.

We live in a culture of meritocracy, where we are taught to dream big and that anything is possible. There should be no limit to how far and to where we can go. In many ways, this pushes people to excel, but it also teaches them to look outward, to follow their ambition far from family and the community that shaped them.

It also is premised on a half-truth. Experience teaches us the world is not limitless. One need only consider the environmental consequences we suffer today because of our disregard for natural limits.

And if we observe the fruitful and virtuous lives that move and attract us, we see that they are often generated by the creative tension between limits and freedom. In short, limits are often the very preconditions for true freedom and creativity. The painter is bound by the four sides of her canvas, but it is within those four sides that her creativity comes to life.

What is true of us as human beings is true about geography and place. One of the hurdles I needed to overcome to move home was the way I viewed Grand Rapids as limited, crabbed and confining. It isn’t D.C. and doesn’t have some of the great opportunities D.C. has. But I can see now how the very things I saw as limits are actually opportunities for true flourishing.

Wendell Berry writes that “most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.” When I began to view Grand Rapids and Michigan in that light, I saw how Michigan can, and will continue to, surprise and remain fresh as the years go on. There are nooks and crannies, bars and restaurants, streets and parks, here in Grand Rapids and all over the state, that I’ve yet to explore -- even the places I’ve been hundreds of times offer fresh revelations as I revisit them.

My suggestion, then, is that we need to cultivate such an understanding about the places from which we come — the towns and cities that dot the Michigan landscape. And then we need to convey it to our young people.

Despite Michigan’s perceived limits, it is a place of remarkable opportunity that we can spend a lifetime exploring and never exhaust.  We need to teach our young people that greener pastures don’t lie elsewhere, but right in front of us. If we do this, I’d wager that many more of our young people would stay here. They’d see deep value in building up and sustaining the places they’ve been given.

While such an approach won’t reverse all the trends sending our young people away, they would be a big step in the right direction. We need not give up on programs like Cool Cities, but we need to address the deeper fundamentals that lead folks away.

And we need to take legitimate pride in this place and not be afraid to proclaim Michigan’s virtues to her native sons and daughters.

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