Agency and Identity

I think the unsatisfactory thing about many of my narratives (that is: how I tell my story) is that they tend to make me a passive being. Like this, though, they cannot give me a sense of identity. I still don´t know who that person is to whom all of this happened. The way to get a sense of who I am, then, might be to create an active narrative, a narrative in which I am an agent.

Some people – I´ll boldly say misunderstand – this approach. They seem to think it is enough to claim you are responsible for everything that happened. You are not what you did and intended at the time you acted, you are what resulted from your actions. Implicitly or explicitly those people assume everything that happened is something you secretly (consciously or unconsciously) wanted to happen.

I think that is nonsensical. It defies common sense. This kind of thinking is incredibly wide-spread at the moment, but I think it´s a fairly recent trend that will go away again. If I want to believe this, I also have to believe courts judging people on the grounds that they did or didn´t have certain intentions are acting unfairly. With the approach above you don´t have to ask for intentions. The agent has always intended to achieve exactly what happened anyway.

What I want is a narrative that allows me to feel like I´m the end product of my life story and that I can move on to working on my aims now. I want a narrative that enables me to act, and I think the only such narrative can be one that focuses on my own doings. What else can give me a realistic idea of my behavior patterns and my previous and current limits? The key here is, of course, realistic. Blindly taking responsibility for the outcome of everything I was ever part of is useless because it leaves just as much of a void as seeing myself as completely passive.  It is just as impersonal. Absolute victim and absolute perpetrator are both images which disable me from feeling a sense of identity.

I find again and again that it doesn´t really matter what I did in my life, what matters is how I look at it. The moment I can look at it through the lens of agency I feel safe from the judgment of others. I am my own judge then, and I can decide on my own how to deal with myself. I get a sense of self-respect just from that, independently of the actions I´m judging. Consequently, my current shame and lack of self-respect do not so much result from my real life actions, but from the way in which I´ve seen myself and my life. Most of the time, after all, I have adamantly refused any sense of agency. Everything just happened to me.

This, right now, is a mere assessment of reality. If I want self-respect, a sense of identity and to stop fearing the judgment of others I need to take a realistic and ego-syntonic perspective of agency. This is not yet a perspective of agency itself. It is at best a mission statement.

Actually, nothing changes so much. I still need to look at my life, and in order to get a realistic assessment of my own agency I also have to look at the actions of others or how I perceived them. This “sense of agency” revelation is more like an explanation as to why combing through my memories again and again and writing down the same complaints again and again doesn´t set me free. It becomes clear to me what I need, and it becomes clear to me where the source of my shame lies.

Maybe, just maybe, this sense of agency also describes the difference between sanity and madness.


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