Agents of Ourselves: Part Three

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, 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.

* The phrase in the subhead comes from the poem, “My Heart Leaps Up”, by William Wordsworth.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Sorry, but that isn’t what the song is about. And I believe that same person said it was written by Stevie at a young age. The lyrics were written by Jim Capaldi, and he has answered this question many times. It’s not about drugs at all.
    “(Actor Michael) Pollard and I would sit around writing
    lyrics all day, talking about
    Bob Dylan and the Band, thinking up
    ridiculous plots for the movie.
    Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my
    book [the line] ‘The Low
    Spark of High Heeled Boys.’ For me, it
    summed him up. He had this
    tremendous rebel attitude. He walked
    around in his cowboy boots, his
    leather jacket. At the time he was a
    heavy little dude. It seemed to
    sum up all the people of that generation
    who were just rebels. […]
    The ‘Low Spark’, for me, was the spirit,
    high-spirited. You know,
    standing on a street corner. The low
    rider. The ‘Low Spark’ meaning
    that strong undercurrent at the street

    I do believe some references to record execs are woven throughout, though.

  2. Mark — As I wrote to your privately, “agency” is a growing subject in K12 education circles, at least among those of us who want to transform education from it’s 100 year old industrial model. Agency relative to school means giving kids greater latitude to explore what interests them and teachers greater latitude in helping them do that. Standing in the way is “we’ve always done education ‘this way’.” If we give kids greater agency, which has enormous benefits – and you mention them your post – we’d have to give up some of the traditional curriculum or modify the school day. That sends shudders through much of the ed community. it’s why Gallup found that engagement plummets for kids as the progress from K5 to MS to HS.

    But if we want to combat “growing up to conform, or to surrender to the misguided pressures of correctness and normalcy,” affording and nurturing agency has to be a deliberate exercise.

  3. Very interesting Mark. I knew about some of the references in the Traffic song, but not all. I do believe, however, that a lot of us, go through varying degrees of surrender of our ‘agency’, Sometimes the world forces you to do it. I surrendered for 20 years to join the advertising business, and not really care what kind of stuff I had to sell, because you were really never given the choice. But the tradeoff was, that I could provide a good life for my family and sock some money away for retirement. But the agency never went away, it woke up later in the evening after everyone had gone to bed and manifested itself in poetry, which later turned to lyrics, and stories which later turned into screenplay, and blogs, which weren’t even called that back then, in which I dissected a lot of the things I saw wrong with the world. The when I went on my own, I was able to more or less pick and choose the kinds of businesses I worked on, my agency returned and I began working only for people and companies who were trying to make a difference in the world. I never did a speedball, but I did have some pretty decent acid when I was younger, and wouldn’t you know it, the agency was right there with me. Excellent piece.