Monday, January 05, 2009

Embracing Agency

When I was a missionary for the Church, I often joked about the "problem" of agency -- if only I could force all those people to choose what I know what was best for them....

Of course, that sounds all too Lucifer-like. But there are times -- oh, there are times -- when I can see the appeal of such control, and I wonder why it is that I didn't choose that route in the premortal realm. (Clearly, I'm joking...but am still just the tiniest bit serious.)

I'm sobered when I think about how important agency is (enough that God would cast out a third of His children, not allowing them to EVER have the opportunity to have a body and thus progress toward a degree of glory. EVER.). Think about it. That's a HUGE deal.

I have agency on the brain because I recently had a conversation with a friend who is going through a heart-rendingly hard time. A significant person in her life is making a choice that is, imo, a mistake of gargantuan proportions. This choice is breaking her children's hearts. It is breaking my friend's heart. I can't imagine it will do anything good for the individual, either. And it could have consequences that reach into generations.

As much as I am coming to respect the principle of agency, I pretty much wanted to jump through the phone and MAKE things change, so that my friend and her family did not have to experience the pain that is inevitable as a result of this one person's choice.

But I realized I can't. And my friend already gets that.

I think our mortal selves can't fully understand why it is that "agency is a vital element in our Father in Heaven’s plan of happiness" (Richard G. Scott). It's especially hard to understand why God allows the exercise of agency that can cause so much intense, significant pain for innocent people. I think it tears at our hearts especially when innocent children are the victims, but at some point, haven't we all experienced pain at someone else's hand (literal or figurative)? We are wired to avoid pain.

And sometimes we do that by wanting to control others.

But this is not God's way.

Opposition is necessary, essential. Without opposition, righteousness or happiness could not exist (see 2 Nephi 2:11). Again, God cared so much about agency that He allowed a third of His children (His children!) to walk away and never return.

I have pondered this principle perhaps more than any other principle the past few years. I still feel like I'm only scratching the surface about why agency matters so much. But here are three thoughts I have about why that is the case:

1. We truly have to choose and experience the difference between sweet and bitter, right and wrong, light and darkness, to fully understand what it means to have faith, to be obedient. You know how it feels when you know something in your head, but it hasn't sunk into your heart? I think the way truth sinks into our hearts is to truly choose to live it, and to do that so repeatedly that it becomes part of who we are.

2. Such exercising of agency is just that -- true spiritual exercise. It's too easy to "be acted upon" (yes, 2 Nephi 2 is a favorite scriptural chapter for me). We get into ruts. We develop bad habits - some of which aren't necessarily sin per se, but are still not truly the best choices that can bring the Spirit into our lives. We need to choose to act. We have to repeatedly, as Elder Hales has said, "" As we exercise choice with faith, choosing to actively obey rather than just passively live, our faith grows. Our spirits progress.

3. I think sometimes only the pain of others' can help us understand the Atonement in a way that we might not understand otherwise. It's one thing to turn to Him to overcome our own weaknesses (I at least have control over my choices and can choose to try to overcome my weakness with His help). In my view and limited experienced, it's another thing to turn to Him for help and healing when our pain and struggle comes as a result of someone else's choices, over which we don't have control, and are not to exercise control.

Again, from Elder Scott:
Faith in Jesus Christ and in His power to heal provides the abused with the means to overcome the terrible consequences of another’s unrighteous acts.
Interestingly, the more we exercise agency in ways that tap into the Savior's power and Atonement, the more influence (not control, but influence) we can have.

From Elder Hales (link above):
Finally, remember our agency is not only for us. We have the responsibility to use it in behalf of others, to lift and strengthen others in their trials and tribulations. Some of our brothers and sisters have lost the full use of their agency through unrighteous choices. Without exposing ourselves to temptation, we can and should invite others to receive the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through friendship and love, we may lead them along the path of obedience and encourage them to use their agency to make the right choices once again.
What are your thoughts on agency? How do you turn to the Lord when someone makes a choice that hurts you? How do you exercise your agency? How do you embrace and accept it as a principle and as a principle in your life?


Eric Nielson said...

I think I might have a slightly different take on it than you do.

My view of agency is that it just is. God didn't invent it, and in any absolute sence he can not take it away - even if he tried.

If you were to go through the phone and make things change for your friend, you would fail at some level.

I think we all are constantly exercising our agency whether we consiously choose to or not. Every random thought - or even lack of thought. Every act or non-act. Our agency is constantly being exercised. (For better or worse).

I think that one way it is embraced is by accepting responsibility for what you think, say, do, and become. With my recent reading about brain plasticity, I am believing stronger than ever that at significant levels we all choose who we become moment by moment. Every choice can bring about real, fundamental change in ourselves and real consequences for others.

A big part of embracing agency is being willing to be accountable for all that.

SilverRain said...

You know this is particularly poignant to me right now. I'm learning a hard lesson about agency—both mine and others.

What has surprised me is the vast, fiery anger that has arisen from the frustration of not being able to do anything about the problem. If I say anything, do anything, I'll only make the problem worse. Yet, it is causing me more pain than I thought possible and I want to make it end.

I think the key is begging the Father to let Christ's Atonement heal you. There is nothing that can be done by a mere mortal to ease the ache of another person's misused agency. There is no amount of talking or tears that can solve it. There is really nothing to solve. Only by casting yourself at the feet of Jesus, and exercising the faith to be healed can you let go enough to forgive yourself, the one doing you harm, and anyone else caught in the undertow.

It is hard to realize that your needs may never be met, and to focus on trying to meet the needs of others when your own are an open wound. But it is the only way. There is no other way but through Him, His life and His example as well as His Atonement.

m_and_m said...

I actually agree with you -- that God didn't invent it, and I realize, too, that He couldn't take it away (at least not do that and still be God).

And I guess I didn't explain my thoughts very well, because my thought wasn't about being amazed that God created agency, but just that it's THAT important that it's essentially what I think the war of heaven was fought over. Control, power, and glory for himself was what the adversary wanted. Growth, true Godlike power, and progression are inextricably tied to agency.

But the natural man often WANTS to control others -- to avoid pain (which is a lie, because controlling others causing more pain), to keep power, etc.

I do wonder about the idea, though, that we are constantly choosing. I think that is true to a degree, but I think we can lose its power by not choosing light. Addiction, for example, can get bad enough that a person can actually LOSE the power and ability to choose.

I totally agree about accepting responsibility. I have come to realize that ANYTIME I am blaming, in essentially ANY way, I am not embracing agency.

Sorry...just have so many thoughts on this today.

Thanks for your thoughts, friend.

m_and_m said...

I think you have captured some of the things I have been thinking about most today -- how common it is that pain can be caused at the hand of others, and how often, the only choice that we can make to find peace is to turn to the Savior.

That, of course, means a lot of hard work, discipline, forgiveness, and letting go at many levels. Faith in this way is work perhaps unlike any other.

But it can also bring power and peace, even if circumstances don't change.

Love and hugs, dear friend.

Doug Towers said...

I know that Heavenly Father feels far worse in seeing his children doing these things than we do. I feel sorry for him. It is true that we may feel frustrated at being unable to save everyone from their own folly. But we should focus on teaching the truth and praying to God for such help.

m_and_m said...

Had I not been in a hurry, I would have included the scripture that talks about God weeping at the sins of His children. It's a tender scripture, and a tender reminder that being saddened by others' choices can be a response that is not unlike God's. He weeps for and with us.

Papa D said...

This is profound. I will be linking to it on my own blog in the future.

Thanks, especially, for sharing the following small comment:

"We are wired to avoid pain." Coupled with the idea that "life is pain", you have highlighted one of the most challenging aspects of faith.

If everyone really understood that, I think much of the bitterness we tend to carry as a result of pain would naturally disappear. It still would be hard (sometimes brutally hard) to endure extreme pain (of all kinds), but it would be easier to avoid bitterness.

Eric Nielson said...

When it comes to things like addiction, I still maintain that we made choices to get in that decision. If we look at it like being in a deep hole that we can not climb out of, there were choices made to get us in the hole. Maybe we dug the hole. Maybe we were slanding to close to the edge of the hole. Maybe we saw someone else jump in and we followed.

Sure, things can get bad enough that it is hard to get out, but in cases I can think of, we made choices that lead to that.

This can get into repentance as well, but I don't think God hands out repentance for nothing either. We need to do the things that brings repentance. I think it all still comes down to choice. When we get blessings it comes from obedience to the principles associated with the blessings. When we get cursings we get them because we did the things which lead to cursings.

m_and_m said...

Papa D.,
That one little concept has made a big difference in my life. I try to look for when I am REacting to pain in ways that aren't good (getting angry, shutting down, etc.) and try to figure out how to address the pain in a healthy, appropriate way -- taking a breath, saying a prayer.

We just had a family home evening lesson where we talked about "Stop, Think, Pray" and tried to help the children realize a little more about what it means to 'act and not be acted upon.'

Eric, I think we are essentially in agreement. That said, in talking with this friend of mine, she has helped me think about this with a little more caution -- that is, yes, of course, we reap what we sow. If we make bad decisions, we could suffer the consequences of our bad behavior. So, for example, those who get into substance abuse probably knew at some level when they started that taking drugs to 'escape' wasn't a good choice.

But what about someone who becomes addicted to anger and might not really have the tools to avoid that pattern? This isn't meant to get around the wrongness of dealing with pain inappropriately, but this friend has helped me stop and think a little more about how it is that sometimes we get ourselves stuck. Agency is involved no matter what, but we aren't always AWARE of what we have done and often don't know what to do to get ourselves out.

Does that make sense? (You realize that I'm not trying to argue with you...just sort of sorting through and sharing what I've been mulling over and trying to sort through after this friend talked to me about these things.)

But ultimately, I agree with what you have said. We reap what we sow. The question to me is -- are those choices always conscious, and are people always held responsible for the messes they got themselves into? I am coming to believe that the answer is not always yes. Again, this is not to excuse bad behavior, but to just consider that sometimes bad behavior can at least be part to a "fight or flight" response (or something learned in childhood as a survival technique that becomes embedded into one's coping mechanisms) that may not always be conscious. If someone doesn't KNOW why they are doing what they are doing, can they really change it/repent? The knowledge has to come first, doesn't it?

Eric Nielson said...


I have not felt a word of argument in this discussion. I can sometimes be a little blunt in how I say things, which might strike some people as being confrontational, but that is rarely the feeling I have. Anyway...

I think it is obvious that we mere mortals rarely understand the full consequences of our choices. What Christ will do in judgement in every case is up to Him, and I am not up to the task of predicting how he will handle difficult cases.

I feel like saying that we will often let each other off the hook of accountability very easily sometimes. A father might abuse his wife and children at some level, and we (or often the wife) might say something like 'that is just how he is'.

There are times when we need to stop making excuses for each other and realize that in a real sence most all of us are who we have chosen to be so far. We behave like we do because it works for us and we like it. Some change is possible in almost every case, it is not easy, and we must have a strong desire to change, but it is possible.

Papa D said...

I have taught my children that, "Lamaze keeps the universe together." By that, I mean that everything is a little easier to handle if we stop and breathe before we react. There literally is a physiological cleansing that occurs with slow, deep breathing.

Also, I believe totally in agency, but I also believe that MANY issues are caused by effects of the Fall about which we simply are unaware - that many of the things that constitute our own specific "thorns of the flesh" are genetic and unchosen and paid through the Atonement.

I probably will write a post about that at some point, but I believe it STRONGLY. It's a fine line between denying the Atonement by thinking we can control our own lives and denying the Atonement by not taking responsibility for our own actions. How I do that for myself is hard enough, so I refuse to try to determine how it should be done by others. I simply don't know what they are capable of overcoming and what they aren't - and that is the Savior's call, not mine.

m_and_m said...

Papa D, that is some of what I am trying to capture, but language really is limited. I think this is part of our journey--to figure out that balance of agency (what we can choose/change/influence by choice) and our fallenness (what we don't necessarily have control over, and might not be able to change simply by choice).

I think this fine line is also part of why we are commanded not to judge...we simply don't know why a person does what he/she does, or how much progress has been made, or...myriad other things.

I am thinking about another post on the topic, too. It's something I'm really pondering a lot lately...still have much to ponder, but I appreciate discussions like this, because they help me sort through my thoughts. Thanks, all.

adamf said...

"God would cast out a third of His children"
There is another way (not necessarily more correct) to look at this. 1/3 is also a "symbol for the idea that bounds have been set and power is limited." That is from "The Lost Language of Symbolism." Perhaps it wasn't literally 1/3 of everyone... Just something to think about, given that many of our numbers are symbolic.