The upwards spiral of awareness and agency

Your father has been there the whole time, with both his hands clasping a single hand of yours. His eyes are glazed over and his gaze is fixed on something outside the window, far in the distance. He doesn’t speak.

Your mother has been in and out. She’s asked your father questions with tears in her eyes. He’s given only short answers. 

They both listened to what the doctors have told them. But neither of them know what to do now.

Your extended family and friends have been to visit. They heard about what’s happened, but they didn’t expect it to be like this. For you to be this dead to the world. 

Of course, you’re not dead to the world. You can hear what they’re saying. You can understand the pain etched into their faces. And see the conflicting sense of relief and alarm they feel at your condition. You’re not a vegetable. You have consciousness. You can receive and interpret the information your senses feed you. You just can’t move. You’re a victim of locked-in syndrome, “a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes.”

The person trapped in this condition is living out a nightmare. They have cognition, they have consciousness. They possess all their powers of thought and reason. They just can’t exercise them. They have awareness, but a complete lack of agency over their body. They can know, but are unable to act on the basis of that knowledge.

Another less extreme example of this conundrum—of having awareness but no agency—can be found in stories of individuals who sense impending disaster but are unable to avert it.

Winston Churchill, in the prelude to World War Two, comes to mind. He could see Chamberlain and the rest of His Majesty’s Government capitulating to the will of Hitler. Trying not to offend or anger the Fuhrer. He watched them use the prevention of another war as an excuse for their cowardice. 

In the run up to the war, Churchill had an extensive intelligence network. His contacts fed him information about the development of Germany’s power. About the growth of their armed forces and their munitions production. About the propaganda being used to energise and inspire the German people in advance of an expected conflict on the continent. 

He could see all this and do nothing. Because aside from a powerful platform—his columns were syndicated globally—he had no power. He had no official title or position with which he could influence the flow of events. He saw Europe blundering towards another avoidable, bloody war but could do nothing to stop it.

Like the victim of locked-in syndrome, Churchill had awareness but lacked agency.

People in such positions feel an extreme amount of frustration. Anger at their inability to do anything, to stop what they can see. They have a restless energy, heightened by fear and adrenaline, which they’re incapable of unleashing. 

It must be torturous.

But fortunately, lack of agency is far rarer than lack of awareness. It is more common for us to be ignorant than it is for us to be powerless. The majority will never be locked-in or placed in a position where they can do nothing. There will always be some way, no matter how small, in which we can exercise choice. In which we can choose to act and influence our own or other’s lives.

Fortunately the more common problem, lack of awareness, is also the easier of the two problems to remedy. All you have to do is ask questions. To suspend disbelief. To see before you decide or judge. 

And once you’ve done that, once you’re started on the path to awareness? You’ll find that your sense of agency increases. Awareness compels agency. And agency inspires a greater awareness. The upwards spiral continues until you reach the realisation attained by William Ernest Henley:

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”