Seeking Agency in The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew B. Crawford, in “The World Beyond Your Head,” writes:

“As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive.  The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.”

In this passage, Matthew Crawford identifies a fundamental issue underlying much mental disorientation and emotional turbulence in our lives.  You won’t find it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) or the ICD-10, the main sources of mental diagnosis in the Western world, but the lack of individual agency is a huge source of what becomes mental illness and emotional disorder, and also of susceptibility to the messages of cults and terrorist organizations.  We all need feel that we matter, to ourselves and others, that our decisions and actions can make a difference.

In psychotherapy, clients often feel helpless to be agents in their lives; in their personal and family lives, in their careers, and in the economic and political currents that sweep through communities and nations.  For psychotherapists, the experience of agency in helping others, one by one, is often part of what motivates our choice of profession.

For clients, the lack of the experience of agency can contribute to depression, anxiety, and passivity, on the more withdrawn side of the spectrum of temperament, or to impulsivity, intoxication, addiction, and seeking intense experiences as ends in themselves, on the more active side.  For psychotherapists, mistaking prompting clients into emotional experiences, provoking changes in how they think or feel with various techniques, or getting them to agree with how we think they should see themselves, can likewise be mistaken responses to the need to feel that we matter.

For psychotherapists, helping clients to find their own ways of mattering, of becoming agents in their own lives, is a longer, slower, less exciting, but ultimately truer and more rewarding, way to really matter.  But we are swimming against the current of modern life in this endeavor.  Most of us, including clients and therapists, live in a world that increasingly undermines and neutralizes our natural motivation to be agents in our lives, to matter in the lives of others.