Emotional Center of Gravity

I must admit that I don’t have a keen understanding of physics. But I do know a little bit about spiritual health, emotional health, and church-planting. And I’m wondering if there might be some benefit to borrowing the term “center of gravity” for these contexts.

I’ve been thinking over the last couple of months about the way that an individual and a family seem to hold an emotional-yet-also-geographical center of gravity. I’ve started talking about it with friends, too. And it really does seem like there’s something to it. Where did you grow up? Where did your parents grow up? What about your parents’ parents? Where did you go to college? Are your closest friends from the same place? Where did you get married? Where do your kids most feel at home? All of these factors influence one’s emotional center of gravity.

And when trying to chart out the direction of one’s life, it can be really helpful to consider these dynamics.

I started noticing some of these trends a couple of years ago, when I was researching my ancestry. I discovered that my ancestors tended towards inertia, but even when migration happened there was a momentum that came into play. All of my ancestors started in northern Europe. Every indication was that they stayed in the same towns in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Great Britain (depending on the branch of the family tree) for centuries before they emigrated to North America. But when they moved across the Atlantic, they congregated with other people like them. They gradually drifted westward but then settled and put down roots in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Eventually, the bigger cities in these regions — Minneapolis and Chicago — became funnels for successive generations.

It’s interesting to watch these patterns emerge over time.

Centers of Gravity from 3D Paint

For me and Marci, we’d both say that our “hometown” is in north-central Ohio. But aside from Marci’s mother’s family, the roots don’t go too deep there. We both ended up going to college in northwest Ohio — closer, actually, to extended family in Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota — while still being very much within striking distance of north-central Ohio. When we graduated, it would have made a lot of sense for us to move to any of the larger cities in the Midwest.

But because of a significant spiritual transformation in college, we ended up staying in Bowling Green. I started working for H2O Church. And when our spiritual family started talking about starting something new, we were excited to dream about the possibilities with them. We visited and considered a number of cities around the Great Lakes — all pretty close to our center of gravity. But when the idea came along to plant a church in Amsterdam (way back on the other side of the Atlantic), we were both excited and uncomfortable. Mostly because it was pretty far outside our center of gravity. We chose to accept the uncomfortable elements of moving to the Netherlands because we were doing it with spiritual family and because we were pulled by the sense of mission.

In retrospect, though, I can see how our involvement in Amsterdam50 had a shelf-life — largely because of the tensions that were introduced by our family living so far extended from our emotional center of gravity.

While we were in Europe, my sister and her husband moved to northeast Ohio (the southwest suburbs of Cleveland). A few years later, some of our closest friends from Bowling Green moved to northeast Ohio (Kent) to start a new H2O Church. Marci’s parents and my parents both stayed planted in north-central Ohio. So when we decided to move back to the United States, we felt like northeast Ohio would be a good fit for us. Closer to our emotional center of gravity, where things are more stable and not as prone to “injury.” And over the last eight years, that center of gravity has only strengthened as my parents decided to retire to Kent, as our kids settled into the local school system, and as we built and rebuilt relationships in this part of the world. It really feels like home now. It’s increasingly difficult to see how we might ever leave this area. But I’m not bummed about that.

We’ve found our emotional center of gravity. At least for now.

Working with college students and recent college graduates, I’ve recently started to see how one’s emotional center of gravity plays into one’s life decisions. My friend Nick grew up near Dayton, Ohio. His fiance Kelly grew up near Erie, Pennsylvania. They both graduated from Kent State University a couple of years ago, but they’ve stuck around in Kent because it’s a pleasant middle ground between their families’ two centers of gravity. My friend Aaron, on the other hand, has strong connections to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. Most of his closest friends and family members live there, and he’s regularly traveling back to the area to be with them. So even though he’s temporarily a college student, living in Kent, it seems pretty clear that he’s about to bounce back to Sandusky, like a bungee cord, after this school year.

Neither one of these situations are good or bad. It just seems like a person’s emotional center of gravity has a far stronger effect than I previously thought it might. So I’m starting to think more about this, now, as I counsel students about what they might do after graduation. I’m talking about emotional centers of gravity, as I strategize with young staff leaders who are thinking about church planting. I’m thinking about it with my own children, as they prepare for college and careers.

Do you think I’m onto something? I don’t want to be some sort of fatalist or limiter-of-possibilities. But I also want to be realistic about phenomena like this. And it seems to me that there’s something to be learned from figuring out one’s emotional center of gravity.

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