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the power of place

October 27, 2021

I’ve been thinking lately about the power of place.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a video journal of a woman in hiding in Afghanistan, on the run from the Taliban. It’s a story about her escape, but it’s also a story of love between Afghans and their country, a love that keeps people from leaving, or that pulls people back, despite the dangers and despite the pain.

The love of a place can be profound. Places are innocent. They are neutral. Whatever we feel about them, good or bad, comes from us, from the experiences we have there, and the meanings we put on them. People, on the other hand, can crush you. They can betray you and break your heart. Even when places come with pain – like when you live through a quake in Haiti, a Tsunami in Japan, or a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan – places are hard to hold a grudge against. People, God, the universe… this is who we blame when tragedy hits a place. The places themselves are victims.

Love for a place can influence the choices we make. The woman in the video journal fled with her family to Pakistan when the Taliban took over in 1993. When the United States appeared on the scene after 9/11, Afghanistan suddenly seemed safer. There was debate in the family about whether to return, and ultimately, the lure of home was greater than the fear of danger. The love of place won out.

Now, the woman considers her decision to return to Afghanistan naïve. There was decent indication that her family would never totally be safe there. The Taliban had lost much control, but they were still around. United States presence stabilized things, but that degree of foreign influence wasn’t going to last forever. The risks were there, and they were hefty. Yet the place swayed her family’s choice-making in its favor. And to their detriment.

Some places can feel irresistible. I think a place feels attractive when you feel a sense of belonging there – not to its people but to the place itself: its landscape, weather, scenery, architecture, and energy. It’s why people don’t leave Manhattan, vacation in Paris over and over, or buy property in Costa Rica. It’s why I moved to the Colorado Rockies. There’s just something about that place.

But just as the drive to belong to a social group can generate peer pressure and bias decision-making, so can the urge to belong to a place. That feeling of connection to a place can be so powerful that we can end up living somewhere that may not bring us what we really want or need.

But places can also pull us into good decisions. A new place can break ties with people and habits in old places that have compromised our decision-making. A better place can inspire us to think more clearly, to feel more at peace, and to subsequently make more thoughtful choices. A new place can energize us and disrupt unhealthy inertia.

The lesson here isn’t to resist the power of place as you make decisions, nor is it to succumb to it. Rather, the lesson is to pay attention. If your love for a place overrides good decision-making, then you should be aware. If it calms you to the point of objectivity and intention, then you should know.

These days, with COVID changing our social landscape, a lot of people are moving. Many of us have the option to live someplace we love rather than someplace we’re stuck in. Where we live can be a bigger decision than where we work. With this freedom to choose comes risks: choose the wrong place, and you could end up miserable.

Whatever your situation, remember that places have pull, and like most social forces that bias decision-making, that pull comes in under the radar. If we don’t pay attention to how places influence us, and how the attraction of certain places might pull us off track, we could end up sitting on a beach one day, sipping a Mojito, wondering how the heck we got there.

OK… it’s unlikely that regret would come with that particular scenario, but you know what I mean. The more we pay attention to the forces that push and pull us around, the more power we have to properly weigh our options and make the right decisions. A place can be one of those powerful forces. So, keep it in check.

That is all.

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