It's Not The Place, It's The Purpose!

The presence or absence of one’s own place seems to be extremely critical somehow. On one cover of Among Worlds the word “home” was used no fewer than five times – out of six article titles!

We all know the importance of place in our emotional and spiritual development; at least we think we do. A long time ago I devoured every book written by a psychiatrist named Paul Tournier; in particular a book titled A Place for You, now long lost to some garage sale or landfill site. Basically he said that our ability to go to a new place depends on the solidity of the place we are leaving.

I don’t really know why his work consumed me so – unless it was because I needed that solid place he was talking about. However, even as I think about it now I am reaching the conclusion that place is not the cornerstone of a successful life at all – purpose is. And purpose is omnipresent. The common conclusion is that those of us who have experienced lots of places, especially foreign places, have either greatly benefited from this diversity of influence or have been severely set back by this same diversity. So what is the conclusion to be drawn?

My own diversity of place was due to my parents being missionaries in Nigeria. Yours might be laid at the feet of government, the military or an oil company. For me when this experience comes up in conversation there is usually a hushed and cautious exploration as to what damage this experience did to me. Did I come through it OK? Was I able to adjust? Am I normal? Normal? Heck no, I’m not normal! But what does being a missionary’s kid in Nigeria have to do with not being normal? I know people who have never been anywhere that needs a passport and they’re not normal either. Here is how I make sense of this discussion.

Stuff happens to people. “Stuff” can mean you lived in six different countries while growing up. “Stuff” can also mean that your parent’s divorced when you were three. Or it can mean that you were badly burned in a car accident. Maybe you inherited a fortune from a favorite uncle. All of it – stuff. And guess what – the bigger stuff usually becomes the shudderings of our lives, those things that shake us to our very core and always take us to a different place. Whether it is a better or worse place is up to us.

My ‘Stuff Inventory’ does include my other-culture experience, being flown off to boarding school at the age of six, the total lack of re-entry orientation and on and on. It also includes a ton of other experiences that have nothing to do with any of this. Let’s just agree – I’ve got stuff! All God’s children got stuff! And thank goodness all of it made me a very angry guy.I guess I had better explain my gratitude. Over the last few years I made the amazing discovery that what irritates and even angers us about the world is also our divine destiny calling us. Thus my conclusion that this discussion should not be about place – it should be about purpose.

I’ve learned that for me (you decide if this fits you) there seems to be six stations that we visit on our way to finding wholeness and direction in our life, where all of our stuff actually makes sense. I use “stations” because we continually revisit them as we go through life rather than graduate from one to the other in a strategic sense.

Our inner journey to purpose – to our higher calling – begins at a station called Innocence. Here the world is fair and good. Trust and honesty abound. Take your vitamins, say your prayers, put your tooth under your pillow, obey your mom and everything will be perfect little buckaroo! We easily see innocence in the very young, but it happens in adults too. Only there we call it being naïve.Innocence does not last long these days. Our kids know more about the gritty side of life at five than we knew at 25. If you still have questions, ask them and they’ll explain things to you. Most of us learn early in the journey that not everyone has our good at heart. There are actually people who want to hurt us. We are told we ‘have to look out for ourselves’ and we take that lesson seriously.

This leads us to the second station, Independence.With the discovery that we are no longer one with a perfect world, we move to define just who we are and what makes us different. We do all kinds of things to accomplish this from getting a tattoo to having six earrings in a single ear. There are certain people we associate with and others we don’t. In the sixties and seventies we talked often about ‘finding ourselves’ which usually meant we didn’t want to work. Personally, I was convinced my Self was to be found on a beach somewhere. We had the theory right – we are all driven to find our Selves: true then, true now.

Just as we start making progress in identifying our Selves, we end up in an Institution – actually we end up in at least four of them. An ‘institution’ is any human system in which someone has the power to reward or punish you as determined by your compliance with the institution’s rules. The four universal ones are: family, school, religion and work.This is where trouble begins. Institutions, with few happy exceptions, are more interested in our compliance than in us discovering what purpose or destiny we want to commit ourselves to. Who hasn’t heard “As long as you are under my roof you will abide by my rules!” from their father? At school we are placed at a desk, told to face the front and made to do math. Your musical gift and calling is ignored because music was part of the budget cut. It has never crossed the Education System’s mind that the only role for schools at all levels is to help students identify their destiny and give them the tools to fulfill it. Religion is in the same situation which is why so many people are trying to keep their faith while rejecting “institutional religion.” Even marriage has long been called an ‘institution’, initially it is rumored, by some male chauvinist pig who felt we’d better get some rules around this marriage thing before it got out of control. And, finally, work is the institution where we spend by far the majority of our lives. We are cautioned about ‘rocking-the-boat’ and are rewarded for prudent manipulation of the political forces in play. What happens is that the screws of these institutions quietly begin to tighten on our souls until we realize that something has gone wrong with the whole plan. It creeps up on us like the tide on a sleeping sunbather. Suddenly we realize we have sacrificed our Selves to these institutions and aren’t getting much back. And does that make us mad!

Welcome to the fourth station – Irritation! How we respond to the restlessness and discomforts of our life is what determines our emotional and spiritual health, as well as our life’s direction. I was raised in a context where you didn’t ever admit to restlessness and irritation because that would reveal a wretched backslidden soul. If you did confess to restlessness you beat yourself with thorny branches while you prayed your way out of it. Even better, you worked yourself into exhaustion so the problem became physical and thus spiritually acceptable.Here is what I know now. Instead of running from irritation, we should be running toward it! Nothing worthwhile has ever happened without someone first being irritated. Beautiful music has been written by someone who can’t even sleep until they get the music down on paper. Life-saving drugs are being created by scientists angry at AIDS, cancer or MS. We have electric lights because Edison got fed up working in the dark. Irritation and restlessness is Destiny’s voice calling you and asking “Where are you and why aren’t you fixing or creating this?” This is the critical decision point of life!

Instead of retreating back into the institutions when we feel irritation, what we need to do is seek Insight – the fifth station. If your third culture experience has irritated you that is absolutely understandable. So how can you insightfully turn that restlessness into something wonderful? If your workplace is fraught with problems and unfulfilled promises, of course you are going to be angry. So – what do you suggest be done? What insights have been given to you? Irritation can drive you to amazing insights if you let it.

Accumulate insights and you will soon experience Integration, the sixth station. In integration you see how your life makes sense. You see why your other-cultural experiences have been part of your life. You know why you are doing what you are doing. I don’t think we ever achieve a perpetual state of ‘integration’, we only get to snack on it, to get previews of what is possible. We are all on this journey somewhere. Until I began to welcome the irritations of my life, admit that they had made me an angry or restless, and then seek the insights they brought with them, I was destined to wallow in my anger – which is what by far the majority of people do. Many are clever at disguising their entrapment through religiosity, workaholism and so on but they deceive only themselves.

Everything we go through is destiny’s voice calling us. Sometimes it is hard to hear and sometimes it comes in language we do not understand until a later time. Each of us has a unique divine purpose and we have been given everything we need to fulfill it. Life really is all about purpose. Ian Percy is an organizational psychologist and one of the world’s most in-demand business and inspirational speakers. This article reflects some of the thinking found in his book “The 7 Secrets to a Life of Meaning” available at your local bookstore or at

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