The Evolution of Agency
“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining.”
— Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
My wife and I went to visit dear friends and spent some time with their eight-month-old son, Saqib. His curiosity for life and attentiveness to people captivated our hearts. One morning I looked around for a toy or an object of interest and a plastic bag grabbed my attention. Calling upon my experience as an entertainer, I took the bag as if it were the most precious object, looked at it with great anticipation, and then gently squeezed it as if for the first time. I had his attention! I handed him the bag, mindfully watching him. It was as good a toy as he possibly could have and he squeezed and squeezed and stretched it this way and that way until a very satisfied look fell upon his face as if he had achieved something significant.
In that moment, it occurred to me that for him, this had been a powerful expression of agency. We watched him tug and pull at the bag all on his own and his actions produced a result!
Commonly defined as the drive or capacity to act, agency is quite mysterious. Where does this capacity to act come from? Why is it that human beings seem to have a greater capacity for agency than any other species? Where is agency taking us? And most importantly, do we have a capacity or responsibility to guide the direction?
I often wondered why, as a shy 14-year-old, I spent hours in the library copying words from a dictionary into a checkered notebook, making meticulous notes in different colored pencils — something that I later thought had no practical or personal value. Now I could see why: I was deriving the same sense of satisfaction as Saqib for my capacity to act, to do something. Sure I had given rise to more elaborate results than the mere rumbling of an ordinary plastic bag, but my sense of accomplishment had the very same quality.
In the first years of our lives, our drive for agency is satisfied with very simple actions and results. As we evolve, this drive needs more complex results to be satisfied — more impact, more creative freedom, more meaning, etc.
Over time in my own life, I could see that agency had indeed taken on more and more sophisticated forms, inspiring me to perform in school, express myself in sports and the arts, and eventually leading me to embrace the challenge of thinking for myself. I am deriving the same sense of accomplishment as little Saqib in writing this blog!
While admiring Saqib’s random efforts to do something and his delight, it occurred to me that he was expressing as a little life form, the same thrust for “something” to happen as has been active in the universe. I had already understood that agency manifests itself at different levels of evolution but seeing it in relationship to real human experience was giving it new dimensions.
My mind went to the other end of the age spectrum and I thought about my dearest uncle, a kind and thoughtful man who always expresses a rare degree of interest in other people, in political issues, and in the world. At the age of 87, on a recent visit, he probed me with questions about my life, as he would often do, with the care of a true elder. Our conversation took a turn and a new curiosity entered our conversations: “It can’t be all there is to life… you grow up, you work, you get married, you have children and you have grandchildren… It can’t be all there is!” His comment held a tone of certainty that there indeed had to be more. It was accompanied by a hint of frustration for it did not reveal what that “more” might be. (It should be noted that he has six beautiful and inspiring grandchildren he loves dearly.)
When I was in college and I was faced with the decision of what to do with my life, the question of meaning of life started to stir deep within me. Like my uncle, I had confidence that more lay ahead. I could no longer rely on what my culture had told me about what life is about and what might be my role in it, and I couldn’t immediately see a clear path forward.
The drive that my uncle and I shared for what more is possible seemed in essence identical to Saqib’s drive to see what could be possible with the plastic bag. It also didn’t seem separate from life’s constant drive for more and more to emerge.
This magical exchange with Saqib was like that one piece in a puzzle, which when added finally reveals the bigger picture. Agency too is part of evolution and is finding higher and higher expressions.
An unknown agency led to the unimaginable Big Bang, creating matter. Matter became a foundation for the miracle of life setting in motion an entirely new order of agency. Life in turn became a bedrock for language, mind, ideas, perspectives, shared agreements, morality, creativity, opening up all kinds of new capacities for agency. And now, through the capacities that had developed within us, my uncle and I were able to reflect on the purpose and direction of agency itself.
I often felt that I was reaching in the dark, but my curiosity about the direction of agency eventually led me to recognize the importance of our role in evolving culture. The future as well as the culture of the future is in our hands. How do we guide culture for the future? And how do we steer clear of our prior mistakes of either imposing a fixed direction or assuming no direction at all? Where is this all going?
Again, that mysterious drive for more doesn’t immediately reveal the direction. It is only through pursuing further expressions of agency and culture as conscious human beings that we are going to find out…
(This blog is dedicated to my dearest uncle who looked after me as a child and who was the first adult to express a genuine interest in what I was thinking, while coming from a culture and time when children were rarely asked.)
For more by Gerard Senehi, click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.