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The Agency Moment

Thursday 13 November 2014

NOV. 13, 2014

David Brooks

George Eliot was an emotionally needy young woman. Throughout her 20s, she fell for a series of inappropriate and unavailable men, craving their affection. At one point, she got herself involved in a bizarre tangle with an editor and two other women. It was like a tragic farce as the women competed for his sympathy, complete with shifting alliances, slammed doors and storms of tears.

In 1852, at age 32, she fell in love with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the only one of the men who was close to her intellectual equal. Spencer liked her company but could not overcome his own narcissism and her lack of beauty. In July that year, she wrote him a bold letter.

“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she declared.

She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”

Finally, she added a climactic flourish: “I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this — but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me.”

Some biographers have said that letter represented a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.

I’ve been thinking about moments of agency of this sort because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.

Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.

So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.

I know an army officer who had a terrible commanding officer who only offered him negative feedback. He worked under this guy for 18 months, and whatever he did the feedback was the same. He had to come up with his own criteria to determine if he was doing well or poorly. He had to make decisions regardless of external affirmation or criticism. He discovered agency because external support was gone.

I once knew a guy who was batted about by people who should have supported him. For a time he took it, reacting painfully to each abuse. But finally he just got fed up. In a moment of indignation he lashed out. Every human soul is entitled to dignity and respect. He tasted agency in a flash of anger and an instant of revolt.

I once read about a guy whose childhood was a steady calamity. He was afraid, unable to control his mind and self. But he became a writer and discovered he was magnificent at it. Through the act of writing, he could investigate his fears and demystify them. He discovered agency by finding something he was good at and organizing his life around that gift.

Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. I guess that’s when adulthood starts.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 14, 2014, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Agency Moment.

See online: The Agency Moment