"Watch it, especially if you've been bullied." Those were the words my pastor said when he shared Brandi Carlile's stunning song The Joke on Facebook a few days ago. Bullied. It wasn't until recently that I ever considered myself bullied.
I was seven, eight, nine, ten. One of the oldest in my class but also one of the smallest. I lacked athletic skills, popularity, and force of personality. Your typical wallflower and last to be picked for the kickball team. Give me an encyclopedia and I'll be fine. And yet I wanted friends and a girl my age moved in across the street. She was loud and funny and strong and athletic. What could possibly go wrong?
As was the case back then, we spent most of our time outside. For whatever reason she found it enjoyable to beat me up. Whether it was punching me or throwing firecrackers at my head or tossing me into sticker bushes or doing the "possum stomp" (if memory serves, you shove someone to the ground and get their head between your ankles and jump up and down, with their head beating the ground), or shoving me into a closet while sitting on me and stuffing dirty socks in my mouth...this was just part and parcel of our friendship. It never, ever occurred to me to ask her to stop. To TELL her to stop. to DEMAND that she stop.
Looking back fifty years, I find this fascinating and, in many ways, such a vivid example of what my current life task is. I need to develop a sense of agency.
A sense of agency is the idea that your actions can make a difference in your life. You have the right and the ability to choose a path, be it a tiny footpath or a major fork in the road. You have the ability to have some say in the trajectory of your life. A lack of agency looks like having no say in your life. Letting everything just happen because what you need or what you want doesn't matter anyway. Or even if you make an attempt, it will fail. You will fail. It is powerlessness made manifest.
Think about it this way. We have all heard about the fight or flight response to stress or danger. But the third response, and a common one, is freeze. It's what possums do when they play dead. There are times in life when there is no way to flea a situation. And fighting would only make matters worse. And so some of us freeze.
I recently read (and posted on Facebook) a fascinating article about function of depression. That depression may be a survival technique, causing us to shut down when we have no way of being free from our circumstances, when we have no agency. Similarly, a lack of agency is the hypo-function aspect of stress. Some people under stress move into overdrive and hyper-function. Others shut down and hypo-function.
Now, some people have no trouble with agency. I am recently read No More Faking Fine by Esther Fleece. Her response to her horrific childhood (and I mean really, really horrific) was to excel in everything and pour herself into every activity, every sport, every leadership position. Her response to her trauma was to become the ultimate overachiever.
For whatever reason I did the opposite. I don't know what it is that makes one person's response to stress and trauma to try to over control their world and another's response is to assume that there is no control whatsoever. Maybe my wiring plays into it. Maybe my life experience. Maybe the messages I received both as a child (crazy, immature, incompetent, the cause of all the family problems) or as an adult (my needs, desires, thoughts, concerns are secondary to my husband's and he is to call all the shots. Those messages about the submissive wife did not come from Matt himself, but from the culture we were in.)
And once you have kids, you just kinda go with it. It is like getting swept into a set of rapids and using all your strength just to stay afloat and not drown. Perhaps a sense of agency would be learning how to paddle. I just barely kept my head above water (sometimes not even that), crashed into boulders, and let the chips fall where they may.
In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch discusses what is needed for flourishing in life and he shares it on a nifty 2x2 chart. High authority and low vulnerability leads to exploiting. Low authority and low vulnerability leads to withdrawing. Low authority and high vulnerability leads to suffering. And high authority and high vulnerability leads to flourishing.
I've always had the vulnerability stuff down pat. It's like I don't know any other way to be. But I have rarely had much in the way of personal authority, or agency, in my life.
Getting that has been a challenge. First, I have to recognize all the times that I don't even consider that I can have agency. That I don't even feel like I have either the permission or the ability to speak or act. Then I have to practice having agency. It is a undeveloped muscle that needs practice, strength training.
And perhaps the hardest part is sticking up for myself when using my agency gets me push back from those who might prefer that I not use it. After all, there are still bullies out there. Minus the firecrackers and the smelly socks, perhaps. But bullies nonetheless.
So be patient with me as I get my legs under me in the agency department. I might be pretty clumsy at it. I might say too much or the wrong thing at the wrong time. I might make a stupid decision. But I'm gonna have to give it a shot.
At the foundation of having a sense of agency is the belief that I have something valuable to offer the world. And the belief that I matter. And that it is OK to have wants and needs and take action to see those fulfilled.
I think I have some work to do.