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Speaking out: Living in North Dakota offers lessons

Speaking out: Living in North Dakota offers lessons

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There are life lessons that require us to experience different circumstances and environments. Without exposure to different lifestyles, norms and perspectives, we make assumptions about the world that are incomplete. It’s hard to “think outside the box” when you don’t know you’re in one.

After living in different high-population urban areas through childhood and my 20s, I moved to the true Midwest. A brief stint in Nebraska led to relationships and job opportunities that rooted me in North Dakota. I have nearly eight years of true Midwestern living under my belt, and with any luck, there are many more to come. This is now my home, and I reflect often on how it has changed me and my understanding of the world.

For those of you who have lived here for all or most of your lives, lessons I’ve learned here might seem obvious. What might be less obvious, though, is how folks can miss these lessons elsewhere. In today’s column, I’d like to share a bit about my experiences because I think they help lifelong North Dakotans learn about themselves.

In my experience, big-city folks gravitate more toward their same-age peers simply because they can. Millions of residents can easily segregate by age group. Our smaller populations, however, encourage intergenerational friendships. Indeed, intergenerational friendship is a cornerstone of many North Dakotans’ lives. Making friendships with those who are many years older or younger adds a layer of meaning to life -- a layer I hadn’t realized was missing.

Our smaller populations impact our relationships in other ways, too. In large urban areas, it’s easy to burn through friendships and replace friends regularly. It’s easy to see individuals as disposable when millions of people live nearby. There’s deep meaning in seeing the inherent value in every friend, neighbor and co-worker. In North Dakota, we can’t avoid each other so easily. Nurturing and maintaining relationships with those around us can teach us tolerance. We can’t just exclude or “cancel” folks we’ll interact with again and again. In my prior urban life, I didn’t even realize how replaceable people seemed to me. I also didn’t realize how that view of others stunted my own emotional growth. I’m grateful for lessons in approaching others in more accepting and patient ways, and I have Midwestern living to thank for that.

These insights about relationships are important and meaningful, but they have a difficult side as well. If investment in long-term social relationships is one side of a coin, the other side is how these forces can undermine courage and bravery. It’s meaningful to learn to coexist with community members even during disagreements. However, if we’re so afraid of disagreements because community members are inescapable, we’ll fail to show courage or bravery.

Communities lacking courageous and brave individuals do not evolve. If nobody speaks out when it’s time for us to change and adapt, our communities will stagnate. If nobody advocates for positive change due to fear of critique, our communities will slip into irrelevance in the 21st century. The strong social ties of North Dakotans make our communities strong, but they can also sometimes make us feel trapped. It’s hard to speak openly about changes we must embrace when we care so much about what others think of us.

We can find a way to cherish our relationships while still being brave enough to say what needs to be said. We need to nourish courage in each other, because often enough, politely keeping the peace is holding us back. We can, and should, normalize acceptance and inclusion of our neighbors while not silencing ourselves. A brave way forward is possible; let’s blaze that trail together.

Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her past columns at


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