Living with Another’s Agency

February 20, 2008 | 16 comments
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How often do you want to “fix things” for someone you love because you (think you) see so much more clearly than he does? For me, this urge runs in cycles. The hardest lesson I’ve ever learned — and one I have to relearn, periodically — is that sometimes I just can’t change things. Agency is not just the right for me to choose for my life; it is also, obviously, for others to choose for their lives.

When someone chooses poorly, we are sometimes in a position to do something about it: A father whose son is involved with illicit drugs has the duty and sometimes the power to try to “fix things.” But while a father can force his son into treatment at age 15, that option is not usually available to the father of a 25-year-old. Less direct relationships — even when love is great — leave even fewer options for direct involvement in the choices and solutions for others’ problems.

Once upon a time I carried a clipping from an Ensign article everywhere I went, reading it several times a day, because it acknowledged so clearly what I was feeling and it helped to know that someone else understood:

Such challenges can be overcome because we have some control over them. There are others, however, that are not subject to our control.

Some changes come into our lives as unbidden guests, drawing after them murky clouds of unhappiness and desolation. We may be forced to deal with drug addiction in a family member or friend, or with the deviate behavior, divorce, child abuse, incest, criminality, immorality, psychiatric disturbance, illness, or death of someone close to us. We may even find ourselves the innocent victims of physical assault. Such challenges are not of our choosing, but our suffering is not diminished in the slightest by that fact.

Though our emotions cry out in righteous protest, in our quiet hours we realize that these intrusions into the stability of our lives are the result of choices made by others and are the price we have to pay for the right to live in a world of moral freedom of choice, where good and evil are forever opposing each other in an ongoing struggle for supremacy. This does not mean that we accept these evils, or accept them as inevitable. It means only that we must be prepared to suffer for the privilege of living in a world of imperfect but autonomous human beings with whom we are interconnected by ties of love and affection.

Since we are often powerless to avert such changes brought about by others, our approach must be not so much how to avoid them, but how to cope with them. It is more a matter of acquiring healthy mental attitudes that enable us to understand these changes, adjust to them, and help the one with the problem rebuild in the wake of disaster. (David S. King, Dealing Successfully with Change)

Other readings that have been of great help to me during other times of struggling to deal with someone else’s choices have been Keeping the Door Open and the Stew Hot and Letting Go Without Giving Up. And I write bad sonnets.

My cat prowls through the brush: a whirr of wing
Marks the sudden, not unpanicked flight by
Cautious bird. But if her nest is there, I
See her gamble safe escape to limp and sing
Until the danger is enticed away.
Her act and art have saved her young, and she
Will live, for now, but would as willingly
Have died in her attempt at luring play.
I have no son, but him I love as mine
Was threatened early to be led away
By one who knew not, cared not, what she did.
Unlike that bird, I had no right by sign
Or word to interfere or make them stay.
Heart bleeds, soul weeps; the reason must be hid.

What do you do to cope with the choices made by others when you can only stand by — loving, advising, ready to bail them out to the extent you are able — but cannot take charge of correcting their course?

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16 Responses to Living with Another’s Agency

  1. MikeInWeHo on February 20, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I frequently ponder the first paragraph of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    That is how I cope with most of the challenges that come my way, including unfortunate choices made by others.

    Cool sonnet, btw.

  2. Mark IV on February 20, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Ardis,

    I attended the funeral for a young man from our priest’s quorum who had taken his own life. It was so incredibly difficult; we didn’t know what to do with our own feelings, and we had no idea what to say to the parents.

    I believe the speaker was inspired, because he said the perfect thing, and I wrote it in the margin in my scriptures.

    “We have very little control over the actions of our loved ones. We have a great deal of control over the quality of our inevitable reunion.”

  3. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Thank you for this post, Ardis. I’ve been thinking a lot about this very topic over the past few months.

    Recently I’ve been reminded that the pain we endure by virtue of others’ choices is not only “the price we have to pay for the right to live in a world of moral freedom of choice,” it’s the price we pay for love. For having families and friendships. This came to light as I read a poignant memoir of a woman whose brother committed suicide–her story called up feelings I have for my own brother, who disappeared two years ago. I’ve felt so helpless, because I want to take away his pain, and angry, because his choices have caused the whole family to suffer. This suicide story reminded me that this impotence and vulnerability is an inevitable part of loving people. It’s the flip side to the joy. And boy, does it hurt.

  4. Liz W. on February 20, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I remind myself that I am not alone in my heartache and worry.

    I remind myself that God loves him/her more than I do, and can salvage any mistake and make it worthwhile.

    I remind myself that all sin is covered by the atonement, and he/she can repent.

    I sing hymns, read scriptures, pray, and fast for hope/strength/wisdom.

    And, if it’s really bad and I just feel like wallowing in it, I recite out loud and dramatically “No Worst, There is None” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This always makes me feel better.

    I don’t know why.

  5. Jonathan Green on February 21, 2008 at 2:40 am

    Not a bad sonnet, Ardis. Not bad at all.

  6. SilverRain on February 21, 2008 at 8:23 am

    Thank you so much, Ardis. This has come at a very appropriate time for me. I think Kathryn is dead on—it’s the price we pay for love, more particularly for trust. Long ago, I subconsciously decided not to love and not to trust. I was a very cynical person. Less long ago, I consciously decided not to be that way anymore. I’ve started to build relationships with people by choice. I’ve decided to trust by choice, even when that trust seems groundless and naive.

    Recently, I’ve been hurt far more deeply than I thought possible. I thought I had guarded against any possibility for pain in trusting. (Hubris, I know.) I was prepared for adultery, psychological problems, addiction, physical and emotional abuse—anything. This caught me completely off guard. What’s worse is that it is something that may be permanent—may effect me for the rest of my life—and it wounds deeply into my core self. Never have I wanted to walk away from a relationship more than now—and that’s saying a lot for the one who excels in semi temporary relationships.

    With the help of the Lord, I have decided to stick it out and take the punches. I’ve decided to turn it all over to my Savior, to rely on Him to keep the promises He has made to me and not to try to work towards what I believe is His will. What seems on the surface to have taken my choices—my agency—from me is teaching me to surrender what choices I do have left to Him. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

    So I suppose the short answer to your question, “What do you do to cope with the choices made by others when you can only stand by, but cannot take charge of correcting their course?” is that I let go. I love them, and I allow myself to grieve for what their choices are taking from me. Then, when the grieving is done, I allow the Lord to pick up the pieces and rebuild me. “Allow” sounds like a very passive action, but it is not.

    Not at all.

  7. Thomas Parkin on February 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks, Ardis. :)

    It strikes me that now my more venal sins are pretty much a thing of the past, of my youth, that learning to respect totally the agency of other people may be the biggest single challenge of my middle-age. It also strikes me that as the church enters its own middle-age, this may be a collective sin, beyond the venal sins that we think of as sin, to be worked on. I’m coming to recognize that violating another’s agency – ‘unrighteous dominion’ – isn’t usually a matter of physical force, of screaming yelling punching, but can often be a matter of subtle manipulation. Of quietly trying to bend another person’s will to yours, often with only the very best of intentions.

    I asked myself for a long time why in my relation with my non-member wife I was never able to have the Holy Spirit, when I obtained it rather easily when it came to church callings and whatnot. I knew I only wanted what I saw as best for her, and assumed that God would want that, too. And that He would help me! After a long period of difficulty, I began to realize that I wasn’t truly allowing her freedom. I saw that I couldn’t really say ‘if she never joins the church, or even respects the church, that choice is hers and hers alone.’ Mostly, the potential pain and disappoitnment of that possible reality is something I didn’t want to face. So, in subtle little ways I would try to bend her thinking. I probably still do some of that. But, I’m at least a little conscious of it, and when I become conscious of it, I stop. I try to be completely forthright about my motivations and views, and completely accepting when, after whatever persuation I can offer, she goes another way. To actually let go and aquiesce to another persons freedom is, I believe, a centrally Christ-like quality. I’m working at it.

    ~

  8. Jim Cobabe on February 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Ardis, they also serve, who only stand and wait.

    Extending my continuing love to those who have strayed is an exercise in true charity. They may never accept my offering — their choosing. Nevertheless, I continue steadfast and ready to give what I can. This in the expectation that something may come along one day to change the present circumstances, notwithstanding my own limitations. Who can say what the Lord can bring to pass?

    I also wait, sometimes with far less patience, for the day when injustice and unfairness will be reconciled. These are built-in aspects of our imperfect world, which will eventually be cleansed and perfected. It will come, in the Lord’s good time.

  9. Thomas Parkin on February 21, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    “‘unrighteous dominion’ – isn’t usually a matter of physical force, of screaming yelling punching, but can often be a matter of subtle manipulation. Of quietly trying to bend another person’s will to yours, often with only the very best of intentions.”

    Collectively, we call it “Missionary Work.”

    Chirp. :)

    ~

  10. Ellis on February 21, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    “A father whose son is involved with illicit drugs has the duty and sometimes the power to try to “fix things.” But while a father can force his son into treatment at age 15, that option is not usually available to the father of a 25-year-old. Less direct relationships — even when love is great — leave even fewer options for direct involvement in the choices and solutions for others’ problems.”

    Legally speaking, this option is not available as soon as his son turns 18 (a curse and a blessing). But, a person can still exert some kinds of influence and give love. Working on the relationship while it is possible is a good thing to do. Even then it might not fix anything. So I must agree with Jim Cobabe.

  11. BHodges on February 21, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    There’s an interesting book called “I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better” by Gary and Joy Lundberg, you might like it as well.

  12. Ray on February 21, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    #7 – Has anyone seen “What Dreams May Come”? Aside from the stunning visuals, there are a couple of plot lines that are truly profound with regard to how we see and treat others.

  13. Ardis Parshall on February 21, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Some wonderful responses, everyone, from some who have obviously felt exactly what I’m feeling. Thank you.

  14. Josh Smith on February 21, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I’m not a poet and I rarely read poetry. But your sonet moved me. Particularly when you transition from the deadly play of the bird to the ignorant costly choices of the boy.

    Her act and art have saved her young, and she
    Will live, for now, but would as willingly
    Have died in her attempt at luring play.
    I have no son, but him I love as mine
    Was threatened early to be led away
    By one who knew not, cared not, what she did.

    I work at a courthouse and I regularly see young people addicted to meth. Your lines really capture the situation of those youth. It is a merciless drug and the kids have no idea what they’re doing. It is unjust that they have the power to make such profound, costly choices without really understanding the consequences. Anyway, your lines really captured that situation for me. Thank you.

  15. Teresa on February 21, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    Perfect timing. I find myself watching a very close friend struggle with the consequences of her infidelity. She has only recently admitted this to me, and is in the process of deciding which path to take — the very painful and grueling walk to repentance, or the seemingly easy out of divorce and pretending nothing happened. She came to me, I prayed and advised as best I could, and now I just have to sit back and hope and accept that she may not choose the path that, to me, is so clearly the right one. What I am trying to take from this experience is immeasurable gratitude and humility towards my HF, as I realize that He does this *every day* and on an infinitely larger scale.

  16. SilverRain on February 22, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    #9 – More accurately “Missionary Work Incorrectly Done.”

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