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 Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.

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Agency: The One Thing You Can Control

Aug 18, 2015

What do you have the power to do?

perspective, ocean, beach, agency

Some friends and I were sitting over coffee recently, discussing the way our negative emotions (fear, anxiety, anger) are not necessarily bad for us. We talked about how guilt is different than shame, how anxiety is different than panic, and how anger is different than rage.

We also talked about recent studies which chronicle the growing level of anxiety on college campuses and the general population who are more frequently battling mental health issues.

One of the guys at the table shared a story he’d read about a man who was battling severe anxiety and depression. This man felt completely overwhelmed and powerless. However, one day (I’m not sure if this man was prompted by another or this was his own thought), he realized that he had some agency! He said, “I could take a walk.” And he did! He began taking a 30 minute walk every day.

Over time, the walk grew longer and longer. The man began returning home and realizing he could choose something else. For instance, he could choose to do the dishes or cook dinner. He realized he could eat a more healthy diet and lose weight. The sense of agency he felt began to grow larger and larger, as did the snowball of its impact on his life and future.

The guy who shared this story shared about how a simple choice to exercise was key for him during a difficult season. My friend shared how working out daily opened the door for him to deal with bigger issues he was facing. It seems for both the walking man and my exercising friend – establishing agency led to great change!

According to Merriam-Webster, agency is “a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieve” For example, consider the following sentence. “Through the agency of his former school, he reunited with some old friends.”

We all have agency in our lives. We have power and opportunity to utilize that power. Though our power seems minimal at times and its impact appears minuscule, we always have the power to do something.

Donald Miller is one of my favorite authors and he writes a lot about agency. In a blog post he wrote a couple years ago, Miller stated,

“I can’t stress enough what a massive paradigm shift this is for most people (claiming and identifying your agency). As we argue about who has the solution to many of life’s problems, few of us understand the absolute truth that we are the solution. If somebody is hungry, we can feed them. If somebody lacks education, we can teach them. If somebody is lonely, we can befriend them.”

Some of us are in the middle of situations where we’re tempted to minimize our agency and act like a victim. Someone else made a decision that directly and negatively impacts us. Maybe you invested all you could in a relationship and someone decided they want to move on. Or perhaps you feel your options are severely limited and you’ve lost hope for what even hard work and creativity could produce.

I’ve faced countless situations as a leader where I felt powerless. People I led have made decisions that left me with a problem to solve, a mess to cleanup or a crisis to navigate. In those moments, I’ve faced the choice of focusing my frustration with that person and the less-than-ideal situation or focusing on what I can do to help that person and improve the situation.

I once wrote,

“To get the lives we always wanted we have to embrace the attitudes we often resist. It is not easy to be hopeful when you’re afraid. It is much safer to criticize instead of creating. We risk less when we become cynical instead of courageous…These greater-than responses lead to the life we were created to live. They enable us to achieve the purpose God created us to achieve. They empower us to connect with one another in ways that lead to life and not death. They make us fully alive and fully human. They make us most like the God whose image we were created in from the beginning.”

Last week, when I was having one of those experiences where I toyed between agency and victimization, I wrote a tweet:

agency, reframing, greater than challenge

Sometimes, agency looks as simple as the gap between those two responses.

The truth is we have very little control over life’s hurts and wounds. We don’t plan for getting fired or divorced. Death surprises us. Opportunity catches us off guard. Luck falls in our lap. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our response.

The posture we take in response to the moments we did not plan for will shape who we become.

Seizing our agency today could be as simple as taking a walk or as huge as renewing our faith in God. I don’t know what you’re facing but I do know that you have more power than you realize.

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