Given my personal history, how we grant agency has been a topic I’ve wanted to explore for a while.
Despite her book’s many other problems, in Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft shows insight when she describes abusive decision as a function of the abuser’s value system. Each person has a decision structure-their value system-which encompasses:
- The full range of actions permissible to you.
- Your rationale for any given decision.
Taken together, they form a framework of self-agency within which we can discuss all choices:
- A street preacher labours to save the souls of the public (1) in the sincere belief that the unsaved will burn in fires eternal (2).
- A gift-giver display affection through the transfer of gifts (1) because it serves as a manifest demonstration of love and affection (2).
There are countless internal and external factors which influence our sense of self-agency moment to moment.
One fundamental act of agency is the impact you grant others in your life. How much and what kind are direct measures of our trust, faith, confident and willingness to be vulnerable in the company of another person.
We all do this on a constant basis, you, me, them, even that other wan.
In the diagram I layout the interactions of agency I see between myself and others, a reflected process of give and take. The diagram has helped me to make strong, happy decisions in my life by giving me a way to question and quantify the effect we have on each other. Has this person permitted me agency? Have they taken too much liberty? Do they act to respect mine? Are our interactions constructive?
Let me give you two examples:
I used to be a total piece of shit, complete and utter. That my dad abused me when I was a child became my permission to treat people in a terrible manner. Contrary to this, I had too much distrust and fear to of anyone else give them any say. My entire attitude turned me into a know-it-all asshole who treated my partners, family and closest friend like the shit on my shoe.
It wasn’t until I lost-essentially-everyone I thought I cared about in my life before I began to look at myself as the cause. Nobody got in, but I made sure to get out, right? I’ve worked hard since to treat others with faith and compassion.
My mother, Mary, has never allowed anyone agency in her life. My opinions are stupid, my skills are silly, nothing I achieve clears the bar of Good Enough. Oh, I taught myself to program? Self-started my career? Well if I could have become a professor if I had stayed in college. Wow, I’ve worked out and lost weight? Why bother, you’ve lost plenty.
More and more with Mary, I felt the only way to make myself heard would be to shout her down. Drown her out, shut her down and keep on the pressure to force good behaviour. That’s a shit way to live with someone: either comply and get ignored, or fight every minute for scraps of recognition.
And I know, oh I know, what it’s like to be the deaf person here, because I did the same to everyone else. In the end I cut Mary out of my life because I’ll never win. I could have made Mary go along, set my boundaries and push back when she crossed them. I could have kept Mary in my life, but because I could never force her to listen to me I cut the unhappy-making woman out of my life. She has no self-awareness or desire to change.
What I’ve come to believe is that a healthy sense of agency-and healthy acts of agency-is mindful. Agency doesn’t exist in a void apart from the wold. What we do and the reasons why are reactive, transient, fragile and responsive to care and love and respect. Everything is a choice, and in that we can foster positive decisions for ourselves and others.
Words are words are words. I can make words and noise all week that won’t make a blind bit of difference in anyone’s life. Compassion, action and feedback are the drivers of a cycle of positive agency. My mother will say that she loves me, right? When it comes down to the wire, though, her choice will be to call me stupid. With everyone, I do my best to grant them agency and to be thankful for it. Say you give me a piece of advice. I’ll let you know I followed it and give you my gratitude for it.