Author’s Note: This is the next installment in my series on agency. The first is here. The second is here. The purpose of the series is to help us understand — just as we can’t love others without first loving ourselves, just as our happiness is our responsibility, not the responsibility of others — once we perceive the world in the context of our own power, we won’t be subject to those who seek to take that power from us.
In November of 1971, halfway through my senior year in high school, the British band, Traffic, released the album, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. It received much play on the turntables of my friends and me. The title song contains these lyrics:
If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys
Those lyrics occurred to me as I began to write this piece, particularly the last line. And I decided to dig a little bit to learn more about the album, about the song, and about the meaning of the lyrics. I found this comment on songmeanings.com, in a post from 2010:
In those days, street slang for heroin was ‘boy’ and for cocaine was ‘girl’. High heel boy refers to a mixture of heroin and coke, commonly called a speedball. The ‘low spark’ is a description of the physical feeling brought on by injecting the speedball. The man in the suit is the dealer, making profits on the dreams of his customers. The gun that didn’t make any noise is simply a hypodermic syringe. This is one of the most truly savage songs in history, way deeper than nearly anything else from its era.
There it is: the senses of personal aimlessness, social disenchantment, community alienation, spiritual acedia, and existential ennui that characterize so many lives in adulthood.
The Child is Father of the Man*
Children are what we were before we succumbed to growing up.
Much of what I’ve learned about agency — about fearlessness and genuineness, about creative confidence and unbridled imagination — I’ve learned from children. Children haven’t yet surrendered their agency or had it stolen. They haven’t learned to doubt themselves or to second-guess their own thinking. They haven’t been taught to go along to get along. They haven’t yet been told to grow up, to conform, or to surrender to the misguided pressures of correctness and normalcy. They’re the embodiments of agency — fully formed, innocently curious, unabashedly imaginative, and untaintedly creative. Children are what we were before we succumbed to growing up.
According to my decades of exhaustive research, no child has ever, on emerging from the womb, punched someone in the face, flipped someone the bird, called someone a name, harbored a prejudice, possessed ill will, carried a grudge, copped an attitude, had a complaint, perpetrated any cruelty, or hated anyone or anything.
All those things are, as we say in the biz, after-market add-ons. We may seek those behaviors out. Or they may be imposed on us by peer pressure or the ostensible norms of our environments. Either way, accepting them and living our lives according to them constitutes abdication of our agency.
And along with abdication of agency comes complication. It’s easier to stand behind a screen of complication than it is to stand in the open secure in the values and the in-our-own-skin comfort that would otherwise inform and derive from our agency. The more complicated we get, the more distant we get from our values, from our actual selves, from our agency. That’s why the dilution — the lack of clarity, courage, and strength — that results from the abdication of agency is a costly, dangerous, and very sad thing.
It boils down to a very simple choice: courageously engaged or comfortably numb:
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb
Some things, like agency, are just too expensive to give up. And comfortably numb is no way to live.
Let’s be courageously engaged.