What is agency? Most people think that it’s being able to choose our path. Choose right from wrong. But I think it means much more than that. Agency is the ability to choose everything! Even every single thought we think. As humans, we just haven’t learned how to use this magnificent gift to its full potential. But this podcast will help you see how you can use it more than you currently are.
Today I wanted to address the topic of agency. In my faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we talk about agency quite often. We talk about it as a gift that as children of God we received so that when we came to earth we could “act for ourselves and not be acted upon.” We consider it to be the greatest gift we have been given next to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Agency is a big deal.
What is Agency?
We are taught, in our doctrine, that a war in Heaven was fought in our pre-mortal existence over the whether or not we should have agency. Satan wanted to force us to do what was right so that everyone would get to return back to our Heavenly Father someday. But Christ wanted us to be able to choose and He would atone for our sins so that justice and mercy could be satisfied. And He would choose to give all the glory to God where Satan wanted to keep it for himself.
Elder Renlund, in a talk in the October 2018 General Conference said “Our Heavenly Father’s goal in parenting is not to have His children DO what is right; it is to have His children choose to do what is right and ultimately become like Him. If He simply wanted us to be obedient, He would use immediate rewards and punishments to influence our behaviors.”
A more secular definition of agency is: “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices”
As members of the Church and as a society in general, I don’t think we understand the extent of what agency truly is. Most people think that it’s being able to choose our path. Choose right from wrong. But I think it means much more than that.
I don’t think that agency is just the ability to choose right from wrong, good or evil. Agency is the ability to choose EVERYTHING. Including all of our thoughts.
I love this quote by Brooke Castillo
“Your thinking is the one place that you have complete agency. If your thoughts are getting you the results you want then great, but if they aren’t you can always try on some new thoughts and see if you find some that feel a little bit better and get you the results that you’re looking for.” – Brooke Castillo
I had this podcast all written and then when I was reading the Ensign this morning I came across this quote and thought that it fit perfectly with what I wanted to share with you today.
In Doctrine and Covenants section 9, Oliver Cowdery is chastised for trying to translate the Book of Mormon plates without taking any “thought save it was to ask [God]” (verse 7). He is then admonished to “study it out in [his] mind,” come to his own conclusion, and then “ask [God] if it be right” (verse 8).
When we follow this pattern, Heavenly Father is not abandoning us to rely completely on our own abilities and thoughts as we care for our mental health. He is allowing us the opportunity to learn how to exercise our agency.
As we exercise our agency over and over again in this manner whenever our emotional well-being is tested, we slowly become better and more confident.
Why do we want agency?
Agency gives us so much freedom. A lot of times we unknowingly give away our agency. When we choose to think that we HAVE to do something. But there are really not many things in life that we HAVE to do.
We don’t HAVE to clean the house
We don’t HAVE to make dinner
We don’t HAVE to obey the commandments
We don’t HAVE to have sex with our husbands
We don’t HAVE to do anything…
They are all choices. And choosing to think that we HAVE to do them actually gives away our agency and creates feelings of resentment and frustration.
I was reading an article in our church’s magazine, The Ensign a few days ago. There was an article about how commandments are God’s way of saving us from a lot of pain and suffering. Here’s a quote from that article
“With any of God’s commandments, we have the choice to follow them or ignore them. But as I thought of the Word of Wisdom as a set of guidelines from God that both anticipates and protects us from so many challenges, I thought, “What if all of God’s commandments work that way?” What if a loving Heavenly Father, who has experienced this life and its challenges, has given a guidebook to help us navigate the world as painlessly as possible? And what if He gave that to us because He loves us and wants to protect us?”
Many people believe that the commandments are so RESTRICTIVE and they HAVE to follow them. But understanding that we don’t HAVE to follow them (because we have agency), but by doing so protects us from so many things, helps us feel like we have the CHOICE.
When we believe we are unable to CHOOSE, we feel trapped and restricted. But when we realize that we have the ability to choose anything we want, we feel that freedom. We are able to do what is ultimately going to make us happy, satisfied, and fulfilled. We get blessings!
Taking responsibility for our choices
Sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we are responsible for the results in our life. We want to blame others for our circumstances and the way that we feel. It feels easier to blame others for those things sometimes than by accepting that responsibility for ourselves. But by blaming things outside of us, we are essentially giving away our agency. We are handing it over to someone else to make those choices for us, which is exactly what SATAN wanted for us. But when we realize that we don’t have to blame others for our circumstances or how we feel, we get our power back. We can take control. When we don’t like what is happening to us or how we are feeling, we just have to reorganize the way we are thinking and find the thoughts that bring us back to agency again.
Having the ability to choose makes us more like our Heavenly Father and what makes us human. Animals have brains like our lower brain, our caveman brain. A brain that is driven by instincts with the need to survive. The lower brain operates on the motivational triad. It seeks pleasure, avoids pain, and wants to reduce effort. But we as humans, also have the higher brain, a pre-frontal cortex…we have the ability to NOT be driven by just a survival instinct, but by evaluating the choices we have in front of us and their consequences. This is what sets us apart. This is what makes us uniquely human.
There are always consequences for our actions. Good and bad. Sometimes those consequences are understood ahead of time and sometimes they are not. But there are always consequences. God set out consequences, we set out consequences as parents. Life sets out consequences. That is part of agency. But it’s how we choose to think about those things that matter.
We don’t HAVE to cook dinner…but the consequence may be that our children eat cold cereal for dinner. Is that a consequence you can live with? Maybe? Maybe some days that is totally acceptable and other days it’s not.
You don’t HAVE to abstain from alcohol, smoking, drugs, coffee, etc. But the consequences of not, can have small effects on your life or extreme effects on your life, maybe even eternal consequences. If you don’t abstain from alcohol you may not have any immediate consequences. But you may have long term ones. You may drink and drive and hurt someone. You may become addicted. Many addictions take away our capacity to make decisions, to use our agency. Or they make other choices harder. Those are consequences….
I often struggle with letting my children have their agency. Of course I they need to obey. Of course they need to think the way I want them to think. Of course they need to do what is best for them.
But what if they don’t? What if instead of forcing my way of thinking on them, I let them choose….
Sometimes those choices are going to be ok. But sometimes they are not. Sometimes there are going to be really bad for them. And sometimes I choose to be sad about it.
I’ve been struggling with something with my kids lately and I’ve really had to do some soul searching on it. I have asked them not to do homework on Sundays. Inevitably every Sunday one or more of them has homework that they haven’t done as is due the next day. They made choices to do other things on Friday and Saturday or through the entire winter break and left their homework to do on Sunday. So I have the choice of how I want to respond. I can lay down consequences. Or, I can reiterate my request and try to set an example. Or another option is I can choose HOW I want to think about them doing homework on Sunday and choose how I want to think about them in general. Do I want to be mad at them for making that choice? Do I want to be frustrated? Disappointed? Not, I really don’t. I don’t want to feel mad or frustrated or disappointed. What I really want, is to just be at peace about it. To not get upset when they don’t do what I ask. Not even give them consequences or reiterate why I think it’s so important. They’ve heard me say it. They obviously feel differently. Do I think it would be better for them? Sure! But they need to learn that for themselves. They need to make their choices.
Agency in Marriage
I hear a lot from clients that their life would be so much better if they spouse did X, Y, and Z. That they are frustrated, or angry, or resentful, or downright miserable because their spouse is making choices that they don’t agree with.
He should help me more around the house.
He shouldn’t work so much.
He should spend more time with the kids.
He should pick up after himself.
He should do things the way I want them done so it doesn’t cause me STRESS!
He should SEE that I am drowning and WANT to help!
And because he doesn’t do these things that I think he SHOULD do, it proves that he doesn’t love me. He doesn’t want to be around me. He doesn’t care. He’s selfish.
My lovely friends…ALL of these are thoughts that right now your brain is offering you and you are choosing to believe.
Your husband is using HIS agency and making choices. You want to try and take away his agency and FORCE him or at least WANT him to do things exactly the way you want so that you can feel better.
Who does that sound like???? Who wanted to FORCE us to do and feel and certain way?
Is that what you want for yourself? Is that what you want for your marriage?
You can’t take away his agency. But you CAN use your own to change the way you are CHOOSING to think about him.
And I’m not saying this is easy…especially if you have been thinking these things for a long time. But it is TOTALLY possible, if that is what you choose…
What seek ye?
If you were studying the Come, Follow Me lessons in Week 1 one of the themes was What Seek Ye? As I really pondered that phrase and as I pondered this episode the two coincided in my brain.
So what seek ye? Are you purposeful? Are you intentional? What are you seeking?
Do you purposely chose each thought? Or are you letting your lower brain run run wild and allow and believe every little thought it throws out there for you?
Are you intentional with your thoughts and deeds? Or are you ok with the status quo? Going with the flow? Not evolving and changing.
What seek ye?
Using our agency, to choose all of our thoughts, is our highest self. It is what our Heavenly Father truly wants for us. This is what we fought for in the war in Heaven. This is what makes us like Him.