The Conundrum of Agency

Has anyone ever fixed a problem for you? Completely sorted out a sticky situation of yours without you doing anything?

I’m betting your answer is “no”. It’s hard for one person to fix the problems of another. The one with the problem almost always has to be involved in the solution. Help is often a big part of sorting out our difficulties but, at then end of the day, we own our problems, and we are the most crucial piece of fixing them. Usually, we wouldn’t even want someone fixing our problems without our involvement.

This rant isn’t intended to get you to work harder at your problems – I’m getting at the idea of agency; that no matter how good our intentions, we can rarely fix other peoples’ problems for them (not even through charity). The people with the problems are the most important and indispensible agents of change for themselves.

We can’t get a homeless person off the street unless they’re on board with the way we do it and ready to do their part, whatever that may be. We can’t lift someone out of poverty without them buying into (or maybe inventing) the tools we use to do it, and doing their work.

What I wonder is this: what happens when the people with the problems don’t embrace this? What if, in spite of our best efforts, they aren’t ready or able to lead a change in their own situation? Do we let them stay in their problems? Do we let the homeless person stay homeless, the poor person stay poor?

What’s the alternative – to force them? Isn’t that awfully disrespectful? If they want to stay in a situation we perceive as miserable, rather than doing what it takes to change, who are we to tell them they can’t?

That logic, though, suggests people should be left alone in their mess, even when there are negative consequences for society. That can’t be right, either. Hm. Looks like I’ve argued myself into a pickle on this one. What do you think?

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