Fifteen years ago this month, I moved to Atlanta. By the time the first year had ended, I hated it. Deeply. I constantly dreamed of moving, talked about moving, and longed to move. For about 10 miserable years. Now I love living here. Not that I will not move. After our fall trip to the Big Apple, NYC is once again faintly calling my name. But, if I were to move now, it would no longer be to escape Atlanta.
Throughout my tenure in this sprawling metropolis of 6 million people, I’ve had friends equally struggle with living here. Recently such a friend asked me, “Why is it so hard here?” And that got me thinking: how did I go from hating this place to loving it? What has changed? Atlanta is still Atlanta. But, something is different. I don’t hate living here anymore. Here is my attempt to answer how I fell in love with where I live and hope that if you are struggling with your current location, you will find hope too.
How did I go from hating Atlanta to loving it?
My understanding grew. My thinking changed.
That’s it. As I seriously contemplated what has changed these last 15 years, everything points back to my thinking. But my thinking only changed as my understanding of life also changed. It was a process. A 10-year process. And, it’s going to take a bit to try to help you understand what I mean.
My thinking about happiness changed.
When I moved to Atlanta, I had not cultivated an attitude of contentment, thankfulness, or serving others. Sure, I grew up in the church and knew I was to be all those things. And, sure, I probably did a little striving towards those ideals here and there. But what I really strove for was my “happiness.” Constantly. I didn’t realize how striving for my perceived happiness kept me from growing in contentment, thankfulness, and others-minded. I grumbled relentlessly. I failed to see people around me in need. And, I didn’t have a hunger for God’s word. I went to church, but my daily walk with God was greatly lacking. I didn’t understand God’s sovereignty. I thought I was the master of my fate and had to search and find that illusive land of happiness that I clearly had not arrived in yet. I am grieved by the missed opportunities I had to encourage others, serve others, exhort others as I instead focused so much on me. Especially at one my accounting jobs. That is one of my biggest regrets. I was so miserable in that small, lonely office. If I had embraced each day as an opportunity to serve my handful of co-workers, I wonder how different that job experience would have been. That’s not to say I have done a 180 and always think of others, but under my pastor’s amazing preaching I have come a long way from the me that moved here in 2003. God tells us that we find happiness by trusting in Him (Jeremiah 17:7).
My thinking about emotional pain and discomfort changed.
No matter where we live, we will eventually experience heartache or loneliness. I had significant emotional pain hit about a year after moving to Atlanta, but I didn’t know what to do with it. However, over the many years since, I have learned much from spiritual leaders. My pastor has emphasized that when we are hurting, serve others. A leader in our church has emphasized that when we enter church, we should not focus on self and how friendly people are towards us. These two admonitions were not natural to follow for me. But with years of experience now I have found that both of these people are right. When we are hurting, serve, serve, serve. When we enter church feeling lonely, reach out. A big part of my personal struggle with living in Atlanta was how much selfishness I needed to shed and how much selflessness and others-mindedness I needed to acquire. Learning to look past my emotional pain to see needs around me and strive to meet those needs has made me fall in love with Atlanta. It takes effort. It still sometimes takes effort to walk into church and be others-focused. It would be easier if people just approached me, but I’m going to miss out on a lot of blessings if I sit back and wait instead of take initiative, get out of my comfort zone, and go start a conversation.
My thinking about difficult people changed.
In every place you’d choose to live, you’d eventually encounter difficult people. When you have a problem with someone, don’t avoid them. Deal with it. Again, this goes against my natural inclination. However, running to problems has helped me fall in love with Atlanta. It took me a really, really, really long time to get this and a lot of heartache has been experienced along the journey to where I am now. I’ve learned how to deal with some not so fun situations. Really not fun. Really humbling. And, I also made the disappointing but helpful discovery that I am a difficult person. We all are at some point. I easily saw how others were the difficult ones, but here in Atlanta, I’ve learned that my words can be the damaging words. I’ve learned that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. I’ve learned I need to change. I’ve learned things don’t have to go my way. I’ve learned to strive for peace with a difficult person and to accept that I can be difficult. And the learning continues…
My thinking about walking by faith not by sight changed.
We don’t always get to see what God is doing in the short-term. Sometimes even the long-term. He commands us to love Him and love others, but He doesn’t promise we’ll see the fruit of those actions in this lifetime. We have to learn that we are part of a bigger story. We have to trust that God is doing something – like in the biographies of Joseph, Moses, and Job in the Bible. In the various moments of those life-stories, life doesn’t make sense for those men. It hurts. But, in the end, we see that God was doing something. We are in a story too. We are living out a plan that God has ordained from the beginning of time. We can grow discouraged because the here and now can feel pointless. But, once we start trusting God and understand that we are part of His story, it really encourages us to just do our part. Not saying that it is easy. At times, I still go back to wanting to see the end result right now, to understand the point right now. But, that is my sin nature speaking. The Spirit would have me walk in total faith that God is accomplishing His plan.
My thinking about other locations and situations changed.
The grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, but it’s the exact same grass we have on this side. After various conversations with various people in various stages of life and places, I have found that life is hard everywhere for everyone. This has been truly surprising at times when I was sure that so-and-so had the ideal life. Then, we’d talk, and I’d discover that person struggled too. Just like me. When we left Wisconsin 15 years ago, I was so relieved because life had been so horrible there during our short 18-month stint. Then, we started living our exciting new life here in Atlanta and within a year, I was discovering it was pretty horrible here as well. At the same time, I realized that my “horrible life” in Wisconsin had actually had some really good aspects that I had failed to see and be thankful for while living there. Grass is grass. We need to start seeing the green grass right in front of us and be thankful. On the flip side, we need to see the brown grass on the other side of the fence and accept that no earthly place is going to bring us happiness. Perfectly green grass awaits us in the new earth. Not here.
My thinking about God changed.
I did not know God before I moved to Atlanta. I mean, sure, I knew Him, but nothing like what I know now. I had not yet learned that God is enough. I had not yet had my faith tested as I have had it tested here. Life is hard here. But, I think it would be hard for me anywhere. Eventually God has to take us through the fire, the water, the pain. We might move, but suffering is sure to find us there as well. We so long for the easy road, but it simply does not exist in this sin cursed world. God has taken me through some incredibly low points here in Atlanta. And, He has so graciously and lovingly proved that He can carry me through anything. That He can provide. That He can change people. And, that when He doesn’t change people, He is enough.
My thinking about community changed.
God designed us to live in community. And, yet that community doesn’t always come pounding on our door. You have to go knocking and seeking out relationships. You have to pursue, and pursue, and pursue. And, you have to let go. Sometimes God only crosses our paths for a short season and we must say a tearful goodbye. Sometimes He gives us a lifelong friend. Sometimes He allows loneliness. Sometimes He brings the deepest joy imaginable in a friend. Sometimes He allows you to feel like no one understands. Sometimes He allows you to be crushed by betrayal. He takes us through seasons of community. Sometimes flourishing, sometimes lacking. But, He is always by our side. The greatest commands are not just to love God but to love others as well. Keep being creative. Keep problem solving. Figure out ways to connect with others. Don’t wait for an older person to take you under her wing, but take initiative and seek out a mentor. Listen for needs around you and seek to minister to the lonely. Friendships will form. Not always immediate. Not always how you expected. But, often way above what you could imagine.
Moving might sound tempting.
And, perhaps it would relieve some of your stress in ways. And, perhaps God would have you to move. However, staying, though hard, might eventually prove to be the most satisfying thing you ever did.
I’ve learned that God has only given me this moment. Only precisely now. I can’t get this exact moment with these exact people anywhere else. And, God wanted this exact moment for me. Before the foundation of the world, He planned a purpose for me to be right where I am when I could have chosen to be somewhere else. By studying history as I homeschool my kids, reading biographies, autobiographies, and the Bible, and observing my own life, I have learned these last fifteen years that my responsibility in the moment is to show up, love others, and trust God is accomplishing His good purposes in the process.
The saying “bloom where you are planted” has some excellent wisdom. Sure, we can choose to move. But that new location will not be perfect either. I really believe we can bloom right where we are. And, when the time comes to move, we will be able to move not out of frustration but out of knowing this is our next right step.
Loving where you live is possible. Don’t give up!