Thursday, May 20, 2010

Agents unto ourselves

Agency is a funny thing. It was so important that God let Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, fall rather than coerce obedience. In theory, I can accept this idea quite easily--I like the idea that God will defend to the point of damnation my right to choose my own way.

But it's not always so easy in practice.

For one thing, there's always the question of how much of our own actions we control, how much of our actions or choices are the result of social conditioning. Some of the extremists that I read in graduate school would suggest that very little of what we do is really the result of our own free will. While I don't accept this--I think people are more complex than that--I do have to acknowledge that some degree of social conditioning influences me, particularly when my actions are more reflexive than thoughtful.

But more than that, I think my issue with agency is not really with the question of how much agency I have, but with the fact that accepting my own agency means accepting that other people have agency too.

That's the part I don't like as much.

My mission was really the first point in my life where I was confronted with other people's agency. Up to that point, I'd been able to accomplish pretty much anything I wanted in my life if I just worked hard enough. (School was nice that way.) But conversion doesn't work like that (and in my more honest moments, I have to admit that I wouldn't want it to work like that). People have to choose to be converted of their own free will--no amount of willing, working, or praying on my part made any difference. All I could influence was my own end of things: my efforts could help invite the Spirit, but that was about it. Everything else depended on the other person.

I learned that sometimes agency could be heart-breaking. I remember meeting with a sixteen-year-old girl. She was beautiful, in the way that so many young Hungarian women were, with clear skin, dark eyes, dark hair and just the slightest hint of mystery. She listened to our lessons (in English, because she wanted to practice), she clearly felt the Spirit, and she was eager to learn more. But she wept when we got to the law of chastity and confessed that she had slept with her boyfriend because she didn't believe he would love her if she didn't. And despite our protestations that she deserved more than that, despite her own intense feelings of Catholic guilt, she couldn't find the strength to change. She was too afraid of not being loved. Eventually, she stopped meeting with us.

Sometimes agency is difficult. Sometimes we'd rather not choose. I still remember reading Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" from The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. In it, Christ returns unexpectedly during the Spanish Inquisition and the Grand Inquisitor accuses him of ruining everything. He tells Christ that the people don't want agency--they just want to be fed. If I remember right, he says something along the lines of: "If you'd loved them more, you would have given them less."

The Grand Inquisitor had it precisely wrong. It was precisely because Christ (and God) loved us that they gave us agency. They trusted us enough to let us get it wrong some of the time in the belief that ultimately we'd be better people for it. I believe this.

But somehow I don't seem to get it in practice, particularly with my kids. I can accept that other people have agency, even if I don't always like their choices. But why, having finally learned this home truth, do I so frequently find myself engaged in a battle of wills with my four-year-old, as if I could somehow compel him--by sheer force of will alone--to conform to my own wishes? Why do I so often find myself offering him choices that are not really choices, like you can do what I want or you can go into time out?

To be honest, I struggle with this. I know that a four-year-old is not--in many respects--equipped to deal with the full responsibility for his own life. Part of my job as a parent is to give my son enough choices so that he can learn about responsibility and accountability, but to also set appropriate limits. But sometimes I have a hard time differentiating from choices that teach responsibility, and choices that are really just about me trying to exert my own control over the situation. And I have a nagging suspicion that this will get even trickier as Andrew gets older.

So the question I'm currently puzzling over (and don't have a good answer to yet) is: How do I allow Andrew to be his own agent (in age appropriate ways)? How do I know when I'm letting him learn versus when I'm just trying to get my own way?

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