‘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 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 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.
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‘Just take the first step.’ (Martin Luther King)
I was intrigued by a colleague who had cycled recently from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a gruelling distance from one tip of the UK to the other covering some 1000 miles (1600km). When I asked what he had learned about what it takes to achieve such a great feat, he responded with a wry grin, ‘Just keep pedalling.’ I smiled at his brilliance. All other considerations of fitness, equipment and logistics apart, he had captured the essence of the task – and the hard key to its success – in a nutshell.
This was a classic case of simple but not easy. When faced with some of life’s most difficult challenges – which could equally be, say, a broken relationship or an unfulfilled aspiration – the solution can stare us in the face yet feel agonisingly beyond our grasp. We may overcomplicate things, become gripped by paralysis-of-analysis or fear, lack the focus or determination to do what it takes, or create all kinds of self-defeating reasons to justify our inaction. Nike’s advice: Just do it!
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‘Did you just fall?’ ‘No, I was checking if gravity still works.’ (Meggy Jo)
‘You are responsible for everything that happens to you.’ That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? This was the opening line of some motorcycle training I signed up to last week. I have owned 24 bikes and been off 19 times but some of them definitely were not my fault. At least, I didn’t think so. The training is challenging me to think very differently about my own part in what happened – what I knew or didn’t know; what I was feeling; the various choices and decisions I made; the actions that led to a crash.
This is similar to psychiatrist William Glasser’s ‘total behaviour’ in Choice Theory. Glasser proposes that everything we ‘do’ (i.e. thoughts; actions; feelings; physiology) is a dimension of chosen behaviour. He argues strongly that we have a high degree of direct control over our actions and thoughts and a fair degree of indirect control over our feelings and physiology. It’s a radical idea, offering a vision of far greater personal agency and responsibility than many of us would imagine possible.
If I genuinely have choice over what I do, I am also capable of choosing something better. It means no more ducking and diving, attributing what happens in my life (or on my bike) solely to others or to circumstances. I can’t control everything, but I do have an influence over what happens next and how. This kind of awakening can feel liberating and scary, and often calls for real humility and courage. What are you willing to take responsibility for? How do you challenge and support choice in others?
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