Making funny faces was discouraged. My brother made them anyway. I didn’t, though my unhappiness leaked out all the same. Maybe making faces is something pro-active boys do. A kind of rebellion at being photographed, or perhaps an experiment with what one can do while being photographed. In any case, not towing the line. Not “posing” in order to appear to be a certain way, while inside, one feels entirely another. Making a choice to express oneself, though one’s self-expression is not being requested, and is, in fact, being discouraged. This morning, the word that came up for me when I looked at this picture was “agency”. My brother’s attempt at it in this picture. My lack of it.
I heard this word “agency” recently, maybe in an interview on On Being, or in an article at Brain Pickings. I wish I could remember where. It’s one of those words I sort of get, and yet, don’t completely. I think what the word points at is important. I think I experience a sense of agency intermittently, and then either fatigue and slow-collapse, or just “crash” as when a computer suddenly stops working. I wonder about the intermittency of my own sense of agency.
Are you familiar with this word?
Its older, more familiar definition in Wikipedia is “a business or organization established to provide a particular service, typically one that involves organizing transactions between two other parties.”
The newer definition I’m talking about, also from Wikipedia is “In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. It is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems.”
This rather lengthy article (Chapter 4 of the World Development Report of 2012) titled “Promoting Women’s Agency” reveals in detail, through writing and graphs, many of the factors that get in the way of women’s agency.
There are so many ways peoples’ sense of agency gets blocked. It can be forbidden by society’s law, i.e. women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden certain freedoms, at risk of severe punishment. Agency can be blocked in families which apply the guideline “children are to be seen and not heard”. Agency can be blocked by addictions. More generally agency can be blocked by repeated experiences of being or feeling shamed or physically endangered while making attempts at it.
In modern society we have many choices to make… choosing from the cliched many brands of toothpaste (51 brands to be exact, not to mention sub-categories), choosing whether to eat in, dine out, or call for take-out. Chinese? Japanese? Thai? Mexican? Choosing whether to watch something on Netflix streaming, hulu, or tv, with cable, without? go to a movie, or read, or maybe do laundry? We make endless choices everyday. And seem to feel this is some kind of freedom. The freedom to choose. I wonder what degree and what quality of agency these small choices reflect?
When it comes to making more important choices, many people opt out. Starting with personal artistic self-expression. Or having/making use of the capacity/agency to say a firm and clear “no” in situations where warranted or a delighted and energetic “yes!” in others. I think we often end up with a lot of muted, semi-resentful oks, and yeah, I guess so. In this way, we can mis-use and lay waste, bit by bit, to the value of our agency for a lifetime. As I get older, increasingly feel the weight of time limiting my future options, I wonder if I am adequately embracing my own agency?
In terms of making use of our agency, what about voting? When fewer people vote, Republicans win. And we accept the results of those elections! As if that were the “free will” of the society. What kind of choice? agency? will we have then when retrogressive policies are enacted? when they finish gutting our public school system? our health care system? continue antiquated ways of energy production that harm the air, oceans and earth? Value militarism over diplomacy? Destroy hard-won rights of women to reproductive health care?
Why do we opt out of this agency? Alienation? Confusion? Cynicism? Hopelessness? Conditioned voicelessness?
When we’re able to make a choice, fully inhabit it and act on it, we get to learn the consequences — the benefits and not-so-good effects — and we get to keep learning, growing, changing. Many people who got shamed early on for making bad choices learned the lesson that it was dangerous to engage, better not to have agency. And/or maybe we’re all just tuckered out from making all the wee tiny choices of modern daily American life?
I once took a cooking class from Stephanie Brendle (aka Steffy Sue Bee), a fabulous raw food cook and instructor, ukulele player and singer/songwriter. The class was at the 9th Ave Cafe Gratitude (which sadly no longer exists in the City). At one point, in front of the class, she accidentally dropped some flour on the floor, and called out, “Yay, I made a mistake.” She said that this is how mistakes were handled in the kitchen at Cafe Gratitude. The mistake-maker, rather than trying to deflect attention and hide their mistake and ensuing embarrassment, or express self-judgment, called it out, and everyone else responded with a good-natured “Yay!”
It was such a novel approach to mistake-making that all the students in the cooking class were utterly amazed. Of all the cool things Steffy taught us that day, the demonstration of “Yay, I made a mistake!” was the most memorable, and the most subversive to deeply-held patterns of self-shaming. It was a revelation, unmasking the mean-spiritedness behind our usual ways of responding to mistakes we make, trying to deny or hide the mistake, putting ourselves down with some utterance like “I’m so stupid” perhaps before someone else does. (I can’t begin to tell you how many highly intelligent people I have heard utter this very phrase upon making a mistake). Not to mention the annoyed judgement we feel, and sometimes say out loud, when others commit errors, especially if their error gets in our (mental or physical) way.
I love the idea of calling out cheerfully “Yay! I made a mistake!” I get it. We make choices. There are consequences. If it’s not life-threatening, we get to learn from poor choices. Make better choices next time. Our mistakes don’t mean we should give up agency.
When people don’t have the capacity (or are not allowed the right) to make choices that are in their own best interest, things go kafluey. As children, rather than being told what thoughts we should think. we need to be shown how to think through the information available to us, in order to learn how to make wise decisions, decisions that will affect us and others. Sadly there aren’t that many adults who know how to do this themselves, so there’s a scarcity of role models.
This is a broad generalization, I know. Still there is empirical evidence. Low voter turnout. Xenophobia. War, violence, and mayhem. The repression of women. The exploitation of children. The rape of Mother Earth and poisoning of our oceans. Of course there’s the good stuff too — creativity, kindness, brilliance, sharing, music, all kinds of joy — because we’re that too.
As for me, I’m practicing. Here, online, and in “real” life. Making choices. Showing up. Sometimes choosing wisely, sometimes not making the best choice. Trying to remember to say Yay! I made a mistake. Not being stopped by them. Nelson Mandela said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Nelson’s words are sublime and powerful partly because they go against what we believe to be the heart of the matter — that our mistakes are who we are — shameful and inadequate. That we don’t have agency. We believe this because we were told it and internalized it when we were young. Steffy Sue Bee and Nelson Mandela tell us different. Though the work to get to agency, to being “liberated from our own fear” may start with an aha! moment, the development of it is practical, everyday. If we did not receive nourishment to naturally develop agency as a child, we need to heal the hurt parts of ourselves. We need a daily practice of showing up for ourselves. We need to flex this muscle of agency. We need to be willing to make mistakes. We need to announce, Yay! I made a mistake. And when we succeed, announce that too! This is a lot of work to do, but what else are we to do with “this one wild and precious life?”
Liberate ourselves from our own fear. Engage in our lives full throttle, not holding back out of fear or confusion. Thereby being able to make, each of us, the contribution(s) that each of us in our unique being can make.
This video that came across my desk this morning is one tiny brilliant example of what I’m talking about. The little girl did not want to be a ballerina or a basketball player. She wanted to study karate. She used her agency to clearly say what she wanted. In achieving that, her sense of agency continued to flourish. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
“… playing small does not serve the world.”
ps.. not sure why the video posted multiple times. Sorry. Can’t seem to fix the issue. Just watch once. Unless you want to watch again and again, which you might.