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David’s Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however the material is © 2016 by David Spangler. If you no longer wish to receive these letters please let us know at info@Lorian.org. Previous issues of “David’s Desk” are available here. You can also buy a volume of twelve of David’s Desk essays, entitled The Flame of Incarnation.
~ David’s Desk, Current Issue ~
DAVIDS DESK #112 – AGENCY
I just finished reading an excellent book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. On the surface, it’s an account of the author’s childhood and young adulthood growing up as part of the hillbilly culture in Appalachia and southwestern Ohio. More deeply, it’s a look at a part of the population of the United States—the white working class–that is struggling with seemingly intractable problems of economic decline and poverty leading to substance abuse, broken relationships, and a simmering anger born of a sense of betrayal by the “elites” of the country. These are the people who form the bulwark of support for Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, and I felt I wanted to understand them more fully. Vance’s book came highly recommended, and indeed, it’s a well-written, often very funny yet in the end sobering and poignant look at a problem that is not only an American issue but in many ways a planetary one.
The problem is the inability of societies and individuals to break out of generational patterns of behavior that are self-sabotaging, stagnating, and ultimately destructive. Large parts of humanity are unable to access their own creative potentials, not simply for change but for shaping and crafting their lives in positive and healthy ways. This damages humanity as a whole, for not only do we lose the possibilities that all these men, women, and children represent and the benefits they might have given to the world, but resources must be spent dealing with the damaging effects and consequences of these lost lives and broken cultures.
Vance identifies some of the forces at work, at least in the white working class culture from which he emerged, that contribute to a destructive milieu from which it is difficult to break free. The most important is a lack of a sense of agency. To experience one’s agency is to know that one can make a difference in their own life and that the choices one makes do shape their lives. Instead of agency, in the culture Vance describes, there is a sense of being at the mercy of outside forces which cultivates a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This goes beyond not being willing to help or change oneself. It becomes a conviction that one is not able to help oneself even if the willingness is there.
Vance credits those government programs and agencies that try to make a difference but shows from his own experiences and those of his family and friends within the hillbilly culture that, without a sense of agency, individuals will fail to be helped by what these programs can offer. There is only so much any outside force, however well-meaning, well-intentioned, and benign can do; all too often, when faced with ingrained habits of helplessness, it is too little.
Vance’s observations about the importance of agency are just as meaningful when considering a wider view of our spiritual lives. We have long been taught to look to transpersonal forces outside of ourselves for spiritual help, particularly when we run into challenges and difficulties in life. We see God as an outside rescue squad rather than as a force within us that can make a difference. In so doing, we disregard our own creative and sacred agency.
This is not to say that blessings and advice from transpersonal sources cannot be helpful, especially if they awaken us to and empower our own sense of agency. It definitely can be an important source of assistance. But just as the government can only do so much to help people who do not believe in their own power to make a difference in their own lives, there is only so much any spiritual source can do for anyone who doesn’t acknowledge their own God-given creative potentials. The phrase that God helps those who help themselves has more than one grain of truth within it.
Life is challenging. Events do not always go the way we would like, and at times we find ourselves faced with events and situations that put us at a disadvantage. At such times, help is greatly appreciated and needed. But if we have a sense of our own agency, our own power to make choices and decisions that will shape our lives, then we know we are not at the mercy of such events. We are less likely to see ourselves as helpless victims, an attitude that can well block assistance from any other level of life and spirit. This is one reason the idea of “standing in one’s Sovereignty” is such an important part of the Incarnational Spirituality that I teach, for it is an affirmation of a person’s power of agency.
At the same time that he stresses the importance of agency in a person’s life, Vance is very clear that it needs to be complemented by community. He points out that he would most likely have succumbed to the negative influences in his life, such as emotional abuse, the lack of a stable home life, the presence of widespread substance abuse, had it not been for the presence and support of specific people such as his grandmother. She believed in him and did what she could to provide stability. There were others—his sister, an aunt, an uncle—who demonstrated that the broken life to which he was daily exposed wasn’t the only option and that change was possible. There were other, more positive ways of living. This was reinforced for him by a stint in the Marine Corps which helped him grow from a sense of helplessness to an experience of the power of his own agency, his own ability to shape his life.
Vance stresses that the lack of a community— that can provide not only help and support when needed but also positive examples of what is possible and of agency at work— makes change difficult for those caught in self-sabotaging and negative ways of thinking and being. It’s hard to accept or believe in your own agency if you never see anyone else accepting and expressing their own in positive ways. Transforming a culture of dependence and impoverished potentials requires exposing it in loving ways to communities of people who are exemplars of possibility and hope, people who know that they are agents whose choices shape their lives and thus are learning to make the wisest choices they can.
Reading Vance’s book, I could not help but think of the larger planetary challenges we are facing and how they might make any of us feel helpless or hopeless about the future. We are being asked to be resilient and adaptive in the face of change. We are being asked to bring a positive vision to the shaping of our collective future. But the very scale of the problems we face can challenge our sense of agency. Who are we as individuals to really make a difference in a world filled with change, fear, hatred, violence, and instability? No wonder we tend to look for a savior, a messiah, a strong person, or transpersonal help to tell us what to do and save us from our own sense of inadequacy.
The truth is, though—and my non-physical colleagues in the spiritual worlds emphasize this over and over again—we are not inadequate. We do not lack agency; we are neither helpless nor hopeless. It is a matter of recognizing as best and as fully as we can the sacredness that we possess, the presence of creative potential and the power to make a difference through our choices. And then it’s a matter of demonstrating and sharing this potential with each other so that the strength and power of transformative community can arise amongst us. For I may not know what I’m capable of until I see someone else discovering and manifesting their own capabilities. At the same time, when I stand in my own agency and act creatively to shape a positive future, however small those acts may seem, I may well be inspiring and encouraging others to believe in their agency and creative power as well. In short, we can all benefit from collaborating in a community of love and being hope-filled agents for one another. God may help those who help themselves, but God especially helps those who help each other.
David’s Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however the material is ©2016 by David Spangler. If you no longer wish to receive these letters please let us know at info@Lorian.org
How do we use the principles of Incarnational Spirituality to engage these turbulent social and political times?From October 2-8 join Lorian Facilitators David Spangler and James Tousignant for Standing in the Eye: Creating Calmness in a Season of Storms. This week-long forum will provide practical exercises and approaches for conscious engagement during this election season. For more information or to register click here.
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