7 min read

Why do people come into your life?

The meaning behind those chance encounters.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

In a coffee shop, people sit around a table, one holds their hands up in surprise.
Coffee in Madison, USA.
Kayle Kaupanger via Unsplash.

You are sitting in a local coffee shop and the person sitting next to you strikes up a conversation. This stranger happens to work in the sector you wish to enter. They make a valuable introduction, this leading to further conversations, an interview, a job, and in time, the beginning of a career. Or, to take another example, you are a lone parent working in a local supermarket. A work colleague happens to know someone hiring at a local family business. An introduction is made to a person hiring for a role in a profitable company nearby and, before long, the recent supermarket clerk is in an environment much more conducive to supporting a family. These connections emerged entirely out of the blue, yet opened life paths in line with what the two individuals in question had for long been searching.    

Why do certain people come into our lives, seemingly out of nowhere? In his paper ‘The psychology of chance encounters and life paths’, the celebrated Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura writes that some of the most important determinants of life paths occur through the most trivial of circumstances. These chance encounters can send individuals’ lives in positive or negative directions, based on the values and skills of the person being connected, the openness or closedness of the networks into which the person enters and of course, the intentions of the person with whom a connection occurs.  

To illustrate his meditation on chance encounters, Bandura shares the story of a weary graduate student who ends his research early one afternoon in favour of a round of golf with a friend. The golfing duo encounter two women playing on the same course, one of whom eventually becomes the graduate student’s wife. (This example, it turns out, is a personal one: the graduate student in question is Bandura.) In another example, Ronald Reagan, while President of the Screen Actors Guild, is contacted by the actress Nancy Davis, who is concerned that another ‘Nancy Davis’ on a government list of potential Communist sympathizers at the height of McCarthyism might tarnish her reputation and acting career. The are smitten with each other, later marry, and form what becomes one of the most dynamic President and First Lady duos in American political history.  

The recently inaugurated Chancellor of Durham University and renowned Russian politics and national security expert, Dr Fiona Hill, provides us with a more contemporary view into chance encounters. In her book There is Nothing for You Here, Dr Hill coins the term ‘infrastructure of opportunity’ to describe the networks that can help propel motivated persons even if living in what she terms ‘opportunity deserts.’ Dr Hill describes the ‘Family members, friends, schoolteachers, university professors and administrators, and professional mentors [who] helped me find scholarships and jobs and generally pointed me in the right direction’.  

One such individual is a teacher, Dr Marshall, who encourages her to apply to the University of St Andrews. The local MP Derek Foster follows up regularly to see how Dr Hill is progressing in her applications. And the Durham Miners Association, long-known for its support of miners’ and their families in self-governance and lifelong learning, provide the needed travel stipend for the County Durham student to make an initial study trip to Russia. It is as if these select individuals reached into Dr Hill’s life, pulling her onto new paths as part of the gradual forming of her vocation. Dr Hill’s interest in Russia was clear, but a community of individuals laid new paths one brick at a time.  

Individuals with these types of personal networks, in whatever the setting, receive better information faster than their peers 

It is possible to see the development of a personal network in utilitarian terms, in which an individual sets out to construct a network rich in useful contacts. The American sociologist Ron Burt finds in his pioneering work into social network analysis that the most effective networks are ‘structurally autonomous,’ in which a person has many contacts across different ‘social worlds,’ though with few if any of these contacts across social worlds knowing each other (it is important alongside this branching-out into different contacts that a person coordinates their own close contacts effectively, so that they cannot easily be replaced should this be attempted). A social world may be a particular political party, company, church, or community (each its own cluster in which most members know each other) – the point of a structurally autonomous network is that a single person branches into a variety of these.  

The advantages of a structurally autonomous network are material. Individuals with these types of personal networks, in whatever the setting, receive better information faster than their peers. They can share (or not share) information in ways that provide them with tangible benefits. Burt finds that individuals with structurally autonomous networks tend to be paid more, promoted faster and receive better performance reviews than those without these kinds of networks. In Burt’s work, it is the individual that goes out of their own way to actively construct a network conducive to new opportunities. In other words, this is networking borne out of strategic self-interest.  

Ellul... contrasts an ‘anxious self-centeredness’ with a ‘manner of being’ that ‘can light up relations as lightning does the night.’ 

But what are we to make of the individuals that come into our lives, often unexpectedly, as part of a more gradual structuring of a vocation or even life? On one hand, Dr Hill’s energy, proactiveness and palpable interest in Russia animated her, preparing her for encounters with figures such as Dr Marshall, Derek Foster and Durham Miners’ Association members. On the other hand, the encounters with these individuals were unplanned. They occurred seemingly out of nowhere, much like Bandura’s encounter with his wife-to-be, or the inaugural meeting between Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis.  

We can take a less utilitarian, and more re-enchanting view in reflecting on why it is that certain people come into our lives. The former sees the individual at the centre of all networking, actively if not relentlessly searching for valuable new contacts in the pursuit of opportunity and incremental advantage. The other sees the individual maintain agency while nevertheless remaining open to the unexpected offering by God of connections branching into new social worlds. These offerings are borne out of considerable prior deliberation, ongoing practice preparing the individual for meetings they never envisaged.  

This openness to the offering of certain contacts by God follows on a prior faith in the constant working of God behind the scenes, introducing the right people into our lives at just the right time. These individuals renew us, helping to light up the various paths we walk as part of our worldly vocations. The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul touches on this in his book The Ethics of Freedom, in which he contrasts an ‘anxious self-centeredness’ with a ‘manner of being’ that ‘can light up relations as lightning does the night.’ In the self-centered case, ‘I become the unique central, and essential person who lies behind everything. Only my destiny concerns me. For me I am the central thing in the world. We thus see the dawn of pride, of egoism, and also of worry and anxiety.’ This is the mindset of the avid networker making strategic connections to fulfill whatever they believe is their destiny.  

If we pay careful attention to the unseen within our lives, remaining open to the guidance of the Spirit, then the entering of persons into our lives can re-enchant us.

The alternative is an attitude of service, in which we see ourselves (and each other) as what Ellul terms mediators or vicariates for Jesus in living-out the victory he won for us in his resurrection. For Ellul, Jesus’ resurrection is victory in the war-like effort against evil, a victory which is followed by a ‘mop-up exercise.’ In this mop-up exercise, we nevertheless continue to resist evil by approximating the Kingdom of God on Earth. This approach transforms our thinking about networks, encouraging us to see the entering of new people into our lives as opportunities for mutual service, these encounters ‘lighting up the night.’ We must still live in a world of necessities and determinations – grappling with often adverse circumstances and with evil – but with the capacity to light up the world through personal encounter.  

Indeed, the mediators or vicariates described by Ellul renew us, lighting us up as we discern our respective vocations in service of God. Here, Burt’s structurally autonomous network is not a mere branching into new social worlds as part of the gleaning of useful information for strategic advantage, but rather a series of encounters with diverse individuals who guid us individually and collectively in the formation of our vocations. Bandura’s chance encounters become not mere serendipitous events but rather offerings from God, strengthening us as we strive to promote the good – while resisting evil forces – in whatever we do.  

If we pay careful attention to the unseen within our lives, remaining open to the guidance of the Spirit, then the entering of persons into our lives can re-enchant us. Yes, our individual agency puts us in a position to meet new people. But these encounters are not merely the products of individual effort; they are offerings by God to renew and direct us in our respective pilgrimages with Christ.   

7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right.