Salem, Georgia, was the bedrock of my life. The community where I grew up was really nothing more than a general store, a church and the Salem Camp Ground, which was used for meetings every autumn. Still, it was the place that taught me the importance of character, of being connected, and that having authentic relationships was far more important than following a single-minded track to make money or accumulate the trappings of success.
Related: 8 Traits of Healthy Relationships
The centerpiece of Salem was H.L. “Roy” Moore’s General Merchandise Store, which we visited at least once a day either to pick up something or just chat. The store’s potbellied stove was always surrounded by old men telling stories, swapping lies, sipping on those small Coca-Cola bottles they sold back then.
I think that’s where I picked up the communication skills I use today. But I learned other lessons there that were even more important—like how to be a better person. And that’s not where I figured out how to conduct a meeting in a boardroom or how to give a speech or how to execute a successful IPO.
What I learned from those people at Mr. Roy’s store and in the community of Salem was how to be the kind of person others could count on when times were tough. You delivered food or helped with chores for families who were sick; you helped the elderly get to church or to the doctor; you shared with those less fortunate if they’d let you. The sense of togetherness and love was deeper than anything else. What mattered was how you treated other people, not how much money you had.
One reason I now live in tiny Clermont, Georgia, near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is that it reminds me of that small town. When I go to Whelchel’s Barber Shop or the local restaurant or down to the White County Farmer’s Exchange, I see people from all walks of life, and they know me simply as John. I see community as a bond between people who keep you centered and grounded.
If all of your life connections are forged through your career, then you do not have a community. Having a Facebook page is not having a community. Community happens when you make connections based on a sense of place and purpose. It is about sharing life. A true community will prop you up when life is kicking you around, and it will reel you in when things are going well and your ego has swelled. A community of people who love you and whom you trust can be a guide star for your life.
The people who first taught me those lessons as a child are all gone now. Not long ago I went back to Salem to put flowers on my mother’s grave, and I walked around the cemetery. I was looking at all the familiar names, remembering the old times.
As I walked through the small scattering of old headstones, I remembered Miss Helen and Mr. Gene Stallworth, and Mr. Hubert Greer and all the others from my childhood and thought, What I wouldn’t give to be able to walk back into Mr. Roy’s store and see all those folks just one more time. I would tell them thank you for teaching me what was important and for giving me the tools to have a life today that is centered on love and community.