Spiritual Sundays: Agency in Literature

Sunday, October 21, 2012

It has been a long time since I've written a "Spiritual Sundays" post, but lately some of the concepts I've been coming across in books I've been reading spurred the desire to write this post. 

My entire life, I've been taught the importance of the concept of "agency." My church's definition of agency is: 
Agency is the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation. Without agency, we would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior. With it, we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27).
So basically, agency is the principle that all people on earth have the right and the ability to make their own choices. Those choices come with consequences, whether positive or negative, but the choice is always present. I grew up being taught that agency was one of the most important gifts from God to humankind -- without it, our actions would be meaningless. (Boethius explores the idea of agency vs. fate/foreordination quite a bit in his Consolation of Philosophy, which I read in college, but I can't remember what his conclusions were... just thought I'd throw that fact in there while we were talking about agency). 

So what does this have to do with literature? Well, in the last few weeks I read two different passages in two different books that illustrated this principle, and I just wanted to bring them together because I thought it was really interesting and beautiful that a concept that I believe is an absolute truth was showing up multiple times in the books I was reading. 

The first passage is from The Giver. In this book, the protagonists live in a society where agency has been taken away. Everything is organized and set up so that people live perfectly happy, easy lives. However, there is a complete lack of emotion and meaning to these peoples' lives, and the protagonist, Jonah, realizes this:
‘But now that I can see colors, at least sometimes, I was just thinking: what if we could hold up things that were bright red, or bright yellow, and he could choose? Instead of the Sameness.’
            ‘He might make wrong choices.’
            ‘Oh.’ Jonas was silent for a minute. ‘Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t matter for a newchild’s toy. But later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.’
            ‘Not safe?’ The Giver suggested.
            ‘Definitely not safe,’ Jonas said with certainty. ‘What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?
            'Or what if,’ he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, ‘they chose their own jobs?
            ‘Frightening, isn’t it?’ The Giver said.
            Jonas chuckled. ‘Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.’
            ‘It’s safer.’
            ‘Yes,’ Jonas agreed. ‘Much safer.’
            But when the conversation turned to other things, Jonas was left, still, with a feeling of frustration that he didn’t understand.
I found this passage so interesting, because we actually believe that Satan wanted to implement a similar plan in opposition to that of God; instead of allowing people to make their own choices, he wanted to eliminate choice and give people a "fool-proof" life that was essentially devoid of meaning and purpose. 

The second passage I came across is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and illustrates the importance of the word timshel, a Hebrew word found in Genesis in the story of Cain and Abel. 
‘Ah!’ said Lee. ‘I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order “Do thou,” and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in “Thou shalt.” Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But “Thou mayest!” Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.’ Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
            Adam said, ‘Do you believe that, Lee?’
            ‘Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. [...] I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because “Thou mayest.”'
I love that recognition of the fact that mankind is able to become elevated, to become truly good, because we are able to make choices, to decide if we are going to do good things or evil things.  If we didn't have the ability to make those decisions, our actions would be meaningless. I loved coming across that over and over in the last few weeks. I'm grateful for the opportunity it provided to consider the importance of agency and reflect in gratitude that it is part of my life. 

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