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Agency

2022-04-19

Unfortunately, since I had the original train of thought for this post last year (I was busy), I can’t now remember exactly how it was I got here. Which isn’t important, exactly, but it is potentially relevant, in that the full observation of a train of thought sometimes allows for better discovery of its flaws than mere observation of the end product.

I strongly suspect, at present, that one of the more ignored factors in why things are as they are – why people choose what they do; why they sign up with this extreme or that – is agency, or the lack, and the promise, of it.

Broadly speaking, modern life (in the regions with which I am vaguely familar, it’s a big planet, I’ve barely been anywhere, much less everywhere) is remarkably effective at stripping the majority of individuals of much sense of agency or personal ability / value / responsibility. We deal with “human resources”: an individual is a cog in the machine, replaceable, irrelevant. The standard of 9-5 5/7 ensures that most adults spend the majority of their waking hours (and typically all their most effective hours) performing a set of routine tasks. If you planted a field, you could watch it grow, and know “I did that.” You would see your success (or failure) before your eyes, and feed your family (or not) with the results. If you, say, manufacture hinges as part of a larger assembly line, or file emails (it’s honestly amazing how much this becomes a full-time job in larger operations), or answer the same old profanity-laden tech support calls day after day after day (seriously, if you ring tech support, be nice to them)… does it ever seem to do anything? Does it ever seem to change? There will always be more hinges, never a finished product. There will always be more emails, about the same topics as the ones before. There will always be the next irate caller with the same fault with the same buggy equipment that the penny-pinching manufacturer refuses to let you refund or replace lest it cost a tiny fraction of the CEO’s ten-million-[currency-unit] bonus. What few choices you can make in the environment seem to affect nothing. Make a choice your corporate overlords dislike, and be replaced.

So for all the primary waking hours of one’s adult life, one can view oneself only as the tool of another, and by the time the news comes by with the bad news on a scale or in a place or at a time that one doesn’t feel one has the strength to deal with, it’s just the icing on the cake of quiet despair. It’s not just drudgery that makes these things worse – most people don’t tend to like drudgery, but it can be perfectly tolerable and even enjoyable if it is done for a good reason. But the lack of agency? The sense that you count for nothing at all, that you don’t matter, that nothing you do will ever be able or permitted to change anything?

That, I think, is a heavy weight on the scales of things that drive people to cults and to extremes. For what each of these tends to offer is a combination of certainty – this thing is right, or that thing is wrong – and agency. Only believe this thing and you are, at last, in control. Believe that “the establishment” is against you in some way other than the law, and you can refuse, and be proud of refusing, whatever is offered to you that your specific cult claims is evil. For that is a choice that you can make that has a consequence you can see before you. Choose some framework of morality that is significantly different to the general “be nice to other people” that people tend to hold to a greater or lesser extent, and you can Not Do The Proscribed Thing / Do This Correct Thing / etc., and again you can see your choice actually making a difference in how your life goes.

Maybe it does nothing. Maybe in other people’s eyes it makes you a worse person. Maybe it even gets people killed.

But it feels like agency. And any sense of agency is desperately missing from too many people’s lives.

A lack of sense of agency, I suspect, is also one of the big problems leading to depression, misery, despair, etc. (Not in people whose brain chemistry is a mess from the get-go, obviously. There are a lot of reasons to have these sorts of issues, some hard-wired and some situational and some a bit of both. But I am certainly not getting into a long digression about the quirks of biopsychology, a subject I don’t even know much about, here!) Again, a hard day can still be a happy one. But if it does nothing, what’s the point? If you can’t change anything about your life or other lives, is it too surprising that you might start feeling there’s really very little point to your existence?* That you might become unhappy with your very self?

The long and the short of it is, I think, that we need a sense of agency. A sense that what we do has worth. And that’s worth more than an awful lot of things.


*Trust me on this, there is. (I might even write a post about that later.) But I’m really not the person to talk to if you’re actually having trouble believing that. I’m just some random blunt person on the internet corner with a big keyboard. Seek help if you need it.