Agents of change
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
Elise Van Vessem
30/12/2021 05:56:01 pm
Agreed‼️ Unfortunately, as mentioned in the article, people all too often, allow their current circumstances to limit their choices, even to the point of believing that they have 'no choice'... which, of course, is incorrect.
30/12/2021 06:00:49 pm
Thanks Elise. Yes, we do almost always have a choice, yet the range of options available is different for different people in different circumstances. Sometimes, as you say, we find ourselves believing we have no choice, even when we do, and to discover and act on choice can be immensely empowering. On that theme, you may find this short related piece interesting? https://www.nick-wright.com/blog/choose
Elise Van Vessem
30/12/2021 07:04:59 pm
Nick, yes‼️ just read it and agree 💯% I had a bit of a revelation the day I realised that my current circumstances were a direct result of decisions I had made in the past. So too when I realised that my future will be a direct result of the decisions I make today. When I say "decisions", I also mean actions. Life doesn't just " happen" to us. It's mind-blowing and incredibly empowering. 🤯🦸 Many people choose to believe that they are victims of some outer 'force'/other people/other situations (as I did), but the reality is, they just don't want to take responsibility for their decisions, especially if the consequences happen to go t*** up (technical term‼️ 🤣), then it's 'not their fault'.
30/12/2021 07:15:06 pm
Hi Elise. You made me smile. :) I guess there are all kinds of different reasons why people may choose, or not, to take responsibility for their actions. These could include, say, lack of awareness; defences against anxiety; concerns about potential consequences; personal-cultural delusion. Given what you have described from your own experiences here, you may relate well to this short piece too! https://www.nick-wright.com/blog/choice
2/1/2022 07:54:26 am
I always have a choice. That sounds good. Theoretically. In practice, it is sometimes clear that I can only go one way, for example to get a job. Sure, the choice is: do I take it or not? When I need it there is no choice. I will say yes to the offer.
2/1/2022 09:44:12 am
Hi Jeff - and thank you for posing such an interesting and helpful challenge.
2/1/2022 10:04:15 am
Not only the poor sometimes have no choice. I can't think so black and white.
2/1/2022 04:51:41 pm
Hi Jeff. Thank you for sharing further reflections on this topic. In Frankl's terms, people living in poverty - like everyone else - have the power to choose, because this notion of 'choosing' is a universal human phenomenon. However, the range of choices or opportunities available tends to be far more limited than for people who are more affluent and powerful.
E.G. (Ervin) Sebastian - CPC, CSL
2/1/2022 04:39:29 pm
Happy New Year to you too, my brother Nick 🥳💖
2/1/2022 04:40:39 pm
Hi E.G. and thank you. You are someone who always inspires me as a living example of an 'agent of change'! :)
E.G. (Ervin) Sebastian - CPC, CSL
21/1/2022 07:25:17 pm
It takes one to recognize one, Nick. 💖
21/1/2022 07:26:19 pm
Kind man. 😃
11/1/2022 03:13:39 pm
Thanks for thoughtful article,Nick.
12/1/2022 05:20:01 pm
Thank you, Ruth. You are someone who, for me, role models this idea of choosing and agency beautifully by choosing a stance and taking deliberate action. You do this with eyes wide open - and are willing to pay the personal cost - in order to catalyse and influence real change in the world. Thank you for challenging and inspiring me by your amazing example. :)
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