You are working with Appalachian communities and their negativity is driving you crazy. What did you expect? Did you believe that your sunny disposition and can-do attitude was going to change 800 years of socialization? Or did you actually think that the famed Appalachian fatalism was some myth like hillbilly inbreeding and violence? The inbreeding and violence are indeed filthy lies but the fatalism is one of the defining features of the Appalachian psychology. But it isn't as bad as all that.
You must first realize that you cannot change these people and you have to find a way to work within their culture. I also want you to understand that not only is it impossible to change the individual mind sets of these good people, this fatalism is probably a justified and healthy response to centuries of strife that they have had little power to avoid.
It is commonly believed by Appalachian scholars that around 70% of the originals settlers to the area were Scotch-Irish. The label isn't exactly accurate as this number includes many groups from around the Irish Sea who were neither Scots nor Irish but northwestern English and Welsh. Some quarter of a million people immigrated to the American backcountry between 1717 and the Revolutionary War. There are a number of cases of whole villages moving to the new world.
This becomes important for us when we examine the experience of these peoples starting in the 13th Century. Life in Europe and the world was brutal at this time. Childbirth dropped the life expectancy of women to 25 years of age and many if not a majority of children never reached adulthood. But existence along the Scottish borders had the additional horror of cross border warfare with England and almost constant raiding between lairds and by the Gaelic highlanders. Why would anyone use mortar to build the walls of their home when the raiders will just pull them down? We begin to see why these people may have developed a fatalistic world view.
It would seem that some of these farmers in southwest Scotland caught a break when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. James thought it a good idea to send farmer from the southwest of Scotland to northern Ireland (Ulster) to farm the lands that had been seized from unruly Catholic nobles. The Scottish farmers were good Protestants and in need of better farmland since they had been plowing rocks. Unfortunately the displaced Catholics were not pleased with this new plantation. The violent results continue to this day in Northern Ireland.
To add to the frustration of these Scotch-Irish their linen trade began to flourish until the Woolens Act of 1699 and a six year drought brought the happy days to an abrupt end. The Test Act of 1704 had made it illegal for Presbyterians to hold public office and even called into question the legitimacy of their marriages. Once again these people were on the move with an invitation from the Penns. James Logan the acting governor of Pennsylvania actively recruited these Irish Protestants to settle in the western reaches of the colony. As he told the Penn family, he hoped that these rugged Scots who had been so effective against the wild Irish in Ulster could be a human frontier between the savages and the civilized east.
These people were probably more in control of their destinies than at anytime in their history but the treaties the east made with the native populations and the raids by enemies both native American and European must have struck the Scotch-Irish and their Rhineland German neighbors as capricious.
Eventually the wars with the native peoples calmed down ( we killed them all off with war and disease ) and a difficult but sustainable life opened up for these new Americans. The people of the hills had little in common with the people in the flatlands. This was especially true in the slave states. The Appalachian counties were denied equal representation and suffered neglect but for the most part they had their freedom.
The Civil War thrust the Appalachians between two feuding factions once again. West Virginia stayed with the Union as did Kentucky. The fighting in the hills was personal and brutal. And when it was over West Virginia has the unique insult of having to pay reparations to Virginia. The famed feuds which became a common Appalachian stereotype had more to do with unresolved conflict as a result of the Civil War fueled by a changing economic environment that some innate propensity toward violence. Indeed Appalachian counties are among the least violent in the nation and West Virginia is one of the few states without a death penalty.
Appalachians have since been gunned down by company thugs and their own military not to mention being swept away in flash floods caused by irresponsible mining practices. I will remind our readers that the Buffalo Creek Disaster took place in 1972.
So Appalachians are a bit negative. Can anyone blame them?
The reality is that this fatalism is no more than “knocking on wood”. “If the good Lord is willing and the creek don't rise,” is a common American saying that captures the attitude of most Appalachians. All they are saying is that given their experience they aren't going to get their hopes up. It doesn't mean that they are not going to make the effort it is just that they are going to temper their hope just in case. It is my firm belief that this caution keeps the average Appalachian from slipping into despair. Once they see this trait for what it is, the mature organizer will be able to accept this negativity as a benign element of the Appalachian culture or at its best a valuable self defense mechanism.