Thursday, January 19, 2012

Objects vs. Agents

This Christmas, Adam and I agreed not to buy each other presents. It was the first time we have ever done that, but money was just too tight to feel good about spending any more on gifts, even if they were needed gifts. It actually was just fine. Long ago for me, Christmas became much more about the giving anyway. However, the fact that we were not exchanging gifts, did help me to justify a small purchase on my own behalf when a coupon for Deseret Book came in the mail. I treated myself to David A. Bednar's newly released book experience, Increase in Learning. I call it a book "experience" because it is different than other books in that it comes with an accompanying DVD with supplemental discussion and learning segments, as well as an in-depth interview with Elder and Sister Bednar. The margins are also quite wide in the book, allowing for note taking and inspiration recording. He writes in the beginning that this book is not meant to be a "quick, casual, or relaxing read," and he is right. This is one to be chewed on, pondered over, and then, acted upon.

The subtitle of the book is "Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers", and one of the main principles taught is acting as agents rather than as objects. I love this theme. Elder Bednar says that he does not know of a "principle more central, important, or essential to spiritual learning than the principle of acting as agents and not being acted upon as objects." I agree.

I think that so often in the gospel, when we talk about this gift of agency that we've been given, we focus its definition on our ability to choose, when agency encompasses so much more. Agency gives us the power to act as agents. Act, being the operative and most illuminating word there.

Two weeks ago, I introduced this theme to my children for our Family Home Evening lesson. Conor sat in on the discussion with hopes for a Chewy Toffee Almond bar at the end, but the discussion was geared much more towards the older children. I told them to picture a big rock, sitting there in the forest. A hiker walks by with his stick and starts beating upon the rock. Over and over, the hiker beats upon the rock. What does the rock do? Nothing, of course. It sits there and takes it. It has no choice in the matter. Now, what if someone comes up to you wielding a big stick, poised to bring it down upon you? What do you do? You probably don't even let it strike you once! You quickly dodge out of the way! That is the fundamental picture of the difference between an object and an agent. I gave other examples for them to begin to separate these two states of being. Then, I turned from actual objects, to examples of when we, as humans who actually are agents, choose to act as objects. What would that look like?

Waiting for things to happen to them in life.

Blaming the circumstances of their life on what has happened to them.

Excusing our behavior on "that's just the way I am."

Following the crowd: "I had no choice" mentality.

Standing still with information given to us, waiting to "see if it's true," instead of exploring, praying, seeking revelation, and acting in faith.


I gave examples from the scriptures of agents: Moses stretching forth his arms to part the Red Sea. An object Moses could have gotten to the edge of that huge body of water and given up. "Well, Israelites, looks like we're dead. No way we're crossing this! Oh well! Sorry 'bout that!" But instead, it was an act of agency that caused Moses to act in faith and stretch forth his arms over the sea.

Joseph Smith, reading the Bible and then deciding to act, and pray in faith to put the words of the scripture to the test to seek an answer to his question. An object Joseph Smith might have read that verse and then thought to himself, "Well, if it's true, then the answer will come." And then, without action, it wouldn't have.

God invites us, constantly, to be agents. To use the agency he has given us. Not just to choose, but to choose to act. That is how spiritual learning takes place. It's also incredibly empowering, especially when we live in a world where victimization is the flavor of life. I wanted the children to think of their own lives in these terms, to start an awareness of acting as agents instead of allowing themselves to be acted upon as objects. So, I challenged them to spend the week looking for examples and then come prepared the next Monday to share an experience when they acted as an agent, and one where they allowed themselves to be acted upon as objects.

Yes, Sunday night I had to remind them. Still, their examples the following evening did not disappoint. With great clarity, they had gotten it! They had examples from everything from their attitudes toward learning difficult material in school, to relationships with friends, to piano practice. Aiden shared how he knowingly sat in the room while Dylan started watching an inappropriate movie (far worse than Children of the Corn, I assure you.) thinking, "Oh well, he's the one who put it on, not me," until I came in, caught them both, and quickly turned it off. He confessed in our family meeting that he knew it was not a movie he should be watching, but he allowed himself to be acted upon in that moment, rather than to call Dylan out on his choice and suggest they change it for something else, or to simply get up and leave. Even Conor, who I swear has a gifted intellect for such a little guy, offered his example:

"Well, remember a long, long, long time ago? (Last Thursday) When we had that really, really, really hard math test? (kindergarten math assessment) Well, it was so hard and I did not understand what was going on and there were all of these bubbles to fill in and I did not get it and what the teacher was talking about, so I just sat there and didn't finish my test? I was being an object."

We took each of our "object" examples and then talked about what we could have done to act as agents instead. It was really cool to see them get it. Our ongoing challenge is to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to turn object moments into agent moments, and to share our examples of using our agency. We will turn these moments of awareness increasingly over to our responsibility to act as agents in our spiritual learning and development.

David Bednar writes:

"Parents have the sacred responsibility to help children to act and to seek learning by faith. And a child is never too young to take part in this pattern of learning. Giving a man a fish feeds him for one meal. Teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime. As parents and gospel instructors, you and I are not in the business of distributing fish; rather, our work is to help our children learn "to fish" and to become spiritually steadfast. This vital objective is best accomplished as we encourage our children to act in accordance with correct principles--as we help them to learn by doing. . .The spiritual understanding you and I have been blessed to receive, and which has been confirmed as true in our hearts, simply cannot be given to our children. The tuition of diligence and of learning by study and also by faith must be paid to obtain and personally "own" such knowledge."

That, then, is the lesson we teach. And not just at Family Home Evening, but with the lives they watch us live.


Vennesa said...

Jenna, You're the second person to recommend this book to me. I was just looking at it on Deseret Books' website this morning. I think might have to buy it. Thanks!

Luisa Perkins said...

I have noticed that as a theme in Elder Bednar's talks, and it is a principle that I picked up many years ago on my mission, when I realized that the root of "agency" meant "to act," not "to choose"--then studied 2 Nephi 2 very carefully.

I have been pleased to hear this emphasized in General Conference lately. I think it is one of those previously underutilized principles that can bless our lives in immeasurable ways. I have been consciously employing it in various aspects of my life and habits.

I'll definitely have to get the book; it sounds right up my alley.

J9 said...

Great post! I think I need to get this book. I love what you taught in FHE and need to use the idea myself!