Being from Missouri

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Several years ago, a distressed couple sat in my office, glaring at each other. I've seen this one before: two desperately troubled spouses, unyielding and filled with suspicion.

Things were getting a bit too emergent. I turned to the one who seemed a tad less ferocious and found myself saying: "You need to be from Missouri on this one."

They both looked at me as if I had veered off into a cartoon. I instantly wondered why the hell I was telling this Southern California couple to be from a state that they probably had only flown over. I hurriedly tried to explain. "Let him show you. As in Missouri, you know, the 'Show Me' state."

Dubiously but dutifully, they left my office with their assignment. I will get back to my troubled couple but first, allow me a digression.

For those of you who aren't up to snuff on your Missouri history, here is how it came to be known as the "Show Me" state. Back in 1899, there was a U.S. Congressman named Willard Vandiver who is reported to have said, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."

Much has changed in Missouri since then. There is a governor and two senators who are decidedly not Democrats. The Missouri Bootheel (where I am from), once known for raising corn and cotton, is now better known for having raised Sheryl Crow and Rush Limbaugh.

Has the meaning of the "show me" attitude also changed since the day of Mr. Vandiver? To answer that I polled some of my trustworthy Missouri correspondents. There was a definite theme to their responses.

Evidently we are people who judge character by actions and never let fancy talk or newfangled notions sway us from our common sense. Action will always speak louder than words; pretty is as pretty does. Missourians raised with this attitude pride themselves in not being easily fooled. Skeptcism, even stubborness (remember the mule is the state mascot), is often seen as a virtue.

Tim, who grew up in St. Joesph, Mo., reminded me that our home state's famous mindset reflects the concept of meritocracy held dear by the early pioneers who used Missouri as a gateway to the West. He also pointed out that this kind of attitude can cast a shadow: "At its worst, it can breed paranoia and a nasty strain of rigid intolerance to new ideas and ways of thinking."

Maybe this is what the husband of my troubled couple was thinking when he returned the next week. He was furious. "My wife is 'from Missouri,' all right. She never cut me a break. She was suspicious of everything I tried to do."

The wife felt justified. "Well, he never showed me anything."

I realized that they had savaged my counsel in order to escalate their domestic war. A correction was in order.

"Did you let him show you?" I asked the wife.

She didn't like my question. "What? I am actually supposed to give him permission to show me?"

"Exactly," I said, bypassing her sarcasm. "Being from Missouri means you don't stand in front of the other person with your arms crossed, cynically demanding that he prove something to you. Instead, you invite him with open arms to show you what he's got."

"You expect me to act like a fool?" she retorted.

"I expect you to drop that concern, and give him a chance to show you before you make up your mind. And yes, I expect you to help your husband show you the goods."

I felt like I had learned something, as I often do when I need to grapple with correcting my course. "Being from Missouri" -- at least my new rendering of i -- was actually the opposite of stuborness or suspicion. It is an invitation to "show me" what you've got, not a challenge to prove me wrong. It is an optimistic, but definitely not gullible, countenance. It is about allowing my mind to come to its conclusions empirically.

It strikes me that this reconsidered "show me" attitude seems almost radical in this era when our airwaves seem to be dominated by the immodest likes of Simon Cowell, Dr. Laura and Bill O'Reilly. These are "opinionators" who don't need to be shown anything; they already know the way it is and the way it should be for the rest of us.

Their popularity only reflects our culture, where voicing opinions about who survives on the island and who gets fired has become a national sport. Fundamentalism of all sorts is on the march in the world, and more and more Baby Boomers are forsaking the open wonder of their youth for the false safety of a more narrowed outlook.

The distressed couple, once they finally got the more nuanced sense of the Missouri attitude, were actually able to move from that dysfunctional marriage practice of predicting disappointment and incompetence in each other to the higher art of giving each other the chance to show a different set of loving actions.

About a year after they had successfully concluded their marriage counseling, I got a post card from them. It was of the St. Louis "Gateway to the West" Arch. On the back was written the following: "We may not be from Missouri, but here we are.... and the view is truly expansive!"

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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