I moved to Asheville late in 2007, and I stand by my decision. I can’t say it turned out exactly the way I thought it would, but living here has taught me many lessons about myself and about society in general, which is really what I’d hoped for.
Admittedly this hasn’t come about in quite the manner I’d expected. I came here searching for authenticity, for something that was missing from my life during the four years I served in the military. Growing up nearby, I’d spent a lot of time in Asheville in my youth, and I recalled the town’s individualistic, expressive nature.
I was discharged from the military in September 2007 due to a gunshot wound I received in combat in Afghanistan. My time in the military was difficult, because my desire to think independently was not particularly welcome in the Army. This personality trait was already well defined early in my life—enough so that in high school, I was voted the “most individual” student in our senior class.
Don’t get me wrong: I was an outstanding soldier with an impeccable record, but my achievements were generally met with scorn or jealousy. As the organization saw it, my type B personality and love of pragmatism should have doomed me to failure, but I somehow managed to regularly outperform the more straight-laced and mindless people who have always been stereotypically deemed to make superior soldiers.
Once my combat wounds rendered me useless to the infantry, however, the military was more than happy to get me out of the way. So with a new lease on life, I packed up and headed to Asheville to pursue a life of liberal open-mindedness.
The first few months here felt like paradise. I grew out my hair and beard, and people still find it shocking to discover that I was once in the military. Coming from such a regimented environment, it was easy to see Asheville as a utopia full of open-minded folks who’d settled down here to pursue the authentic life, and I was certain I would thrive here. So, after a brief decompression period, I dusted myself off and once again began pursuing life.
As I immersed myself in the “I’m pursuing the authentic life” crowd, however, my enthusiasm quickly ran its course. Here they were, the very people who, at some point, had made an active decision to live a life of true and uncontaminated authenticity: to go against the grain, rage against the machine, fight the fight. But I soon realized that they were every bit as mindless and conforming as the soldiers who’d once ruthlessly persecuted me.
This became evident whenever someone discovered my military heritage. All of my previous lamenting aside, I’m tremendously proud of my service and of the Army I served in. Yet people who’d seemed interested in me as a person and in developing a friendship would promptly turn ice-cold. Suddenly, everything about me that had once seemed intriguing was now irrelevant.
Meanwhile, I would be peppered with questions that had definite right—and wrong—answers. “Did you refuse deployment, declaring moral objection on the grounds of illegal occupation?” “No” (wrong answer). “Did you participate in combat operations?” “Yes” (wrong answer).
And the clincher: “Do you disagree with the war now?” “I don’t agree with every part of it, but I had to do what I was told, and I never did anything personally that I had a moral conflict with. Anyway, Afghanistan is in a terrible mess, and we did a lot of good for the people over there that the media don’t report in this country” (really wrong answer: The liberal media are absolutely unbiased, good and completely factual 100 percent of the time, and the rest are all tools of the devil controlled by a right-wing conspiracy that aims to dominate the world).
This conversation played out over and over in various forms, but the result was almost always the same. Without any thought or consideration, people immediately and totally rejected everything I said.
So this was the authentic life—loudly and dramatically rejecting one set of ideals only to blindly adhere to another? Once an outcast in the blatantly conformist military society, I was now an outcast in the society of “freethinkers.”
Happily, however, the story doesn’t end there. Although I was in a position to pack up again and head elsewhere, Asheville also started showing me its other side. And as I grappled with my disappointment over my situation and came to terms with the post-traumatic stress disorder that was starting to show its face, people began materializing out of the Asheville landscape and assuming the role of friends—a luxury I haven’t always had.
Beneath the crust of well-meaning but chronically misguided Ashevilleans, I found an incredibly tight-knit community of sweet people sharing a common identity, to a degree that’s unusual in a town of this size.
Once again, the mountain scenery and the art in the streets began to look beautiful. And though I certainly still have my frustrations, the good side of Asheville has more than compensated for them, and I am very happy to be living here.
[Christopher Webb is a student at A-B Tech.]