‘It is because a fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.’
Byron Bunch thinks these words near the end of Chapter 3, when his growing friendship and intimacy with Reverend Hightower is initially traced. Eventually, Byron, out of curiosity, asks the minister why he chose to stay in Jefferson “almost within sight of” the scene of his humiliation at the hands of his parishioners, who turned their backs on him in the wake of his personal crisis upon his wife’s death. Hightower avoids the question and turns the tables, interrogating Byron about his habit of working at the mill every Saturday night instead of enjoying his leisure in town like the other men. Both men conclude facilely that it is simply “life,” that it is the course their individual destinies have taken. But both know that such a pat and simple-minded response is an elaborate avoidance of the fear, loneliness, isolation, and inability to reenter and embrace life that underlies each of their existences. Byron uses the exchange as the occasion to meditate on the nature of personal risk and the potentially harmful self-exposure involved in seeking and embracing change.
Isolation and emotional detachment are among the numerous defense mechanisms that both men employ in their approaches to their individual lives. Each engages in a strategy of emotional risk management. Hightower, by cloistering himself and cutting himself off from the outside world, believes that he is minimizing the risk that tragedy or disappointment will ever be visited on his doorstep again. This somewhat paranoid reaction and fear of the unknown comes as a response to the tension and wide gulf that exists in Light in August between the individual and the community. In a world in which the past brings a conflicted legacy of personal and public shame, individuals such as Byron and Hightower, subject to the harsh criticism and censure of the community at large, choose to avoid any situation or course of action that might compromise their sense of self.