This Saturday, the college’s most famous alum, Woodrow Tracy Harrelson, came back home to receive an honorary degree. From what I hear, he hung with the men in his fraternity and spent some time with the theater folks. A big group of alums who went to school with Woody came back to hear him talk. He lavished praises, as well as some sexual innuendo, at his former theater professors. He gave a talk that was pure entertainment, and on college campuses, that is a rare thing. He was funny and homey and generous and ribald–really everything you’d expect Woody Harrelson to be. I could have listened to Woody all night.
It was touching, and it made me think (as almost all things do) about people and the places they are from.
In my mind, there are two types of people in the world. There are the folks who run, full tilt, heaving-breaths away from the places they are from and never look back. They may visit their parents and in a hushed voice, with enough alcohol, they may admit to you the name of their hometown and perhaps its population, humiliating as that is to them.
But deep down, these people are ashamed. They are ashamed of where they are from and they feel it as a taint they can never quite remove, though they certainly try. They are afraid, deep down, that the place they are from defines them and it is a definition they don’t want. I think of this group as the Gatsby’s of the world.
They are right about the place defining them. We are the places we come from–there’s no escaping it. We can certainly be more than the places we come from–we live in relationship to them. We can pick and choose. What do you want to take with you and what do you want to leave behind? But it is at our own peril that we deny the ways in which the places we are from will always be with us. This is the tragedy of the Gatsby’s; the lie takes its toll.
Woody Harrelson is not a Gatsby. He knows where he’s from. He doesn’t live there anymore; he’s in Hawaii, for Christ’s sake. But he’s not ashamed of where he’s from, either. He’s not ashamed to explain that the reason he went to Hanover is because his mother told him he should go to the same place that nice boy from church did–the same reason he joined the fraternity he did. He’s not afraid to call himself a Presbyterian and admit the first taste of alcohol he had was in the form of a jello shot his junior year. He’s not afraid to make a little fun of himself.
The Gatsby’s of the world don’t give speeches like Woody Harrelson. They are too preoccupied with the effort of preventing everyone from discovering that part of them will always be the person from that small town. You can’t be free and easy when you’re trying so hard to convince everyone that you’re something you’re not. It just won’t work.
Obviously, I wasn’t here when Woody was. I didn’t know him. I haven’t had a conversation with the man. But here’s what I like to think maybe Woody learned from Hanover and other places in his life: you should never be ashamed of where you’re from. It may be for some a lifelong battle to come to terms with, but it’s best to make friends with that version of yourself. To throw your arm around her shoulder and have a long, hard conversation. To perhaps draw on that past to, I don’t know, create an enduring TV character that launches your career? To have a sense of humor about your past and the people in it. To never be ashamed.
I didn’t have a name for this second group of people in the world–the ones who come to terms with where they’re from.The ones who embrace it and take it with them.
I think I’ll call them Woody’s.