Agency is a key component of Mormon theology. Dozens of scriptures from Joshua’s “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. . .” to 2 Nephi’s “”ye are free to act for yourselves . . .” affirm humankind’s freedom to choose.
I never quite bought into my YW teacher’s motto, “You can be anything you want to be.” Even as a 13-year-old, I knew I was not endowed with the gifts to be either a ballerina or an opera star—although I did see a possibility for a career as a film star.
While I never really challenged my assigned station in life, my brother Doogie went through a prolonged rebellion against his upbringing by our boring, workaholic father. Still, Doogie ended up spending most of his life working a job he hated to provide for his kids—just as our father had. Did Doogie have a choice to put his own needs ahead of his kids’? I don’t think so. Whether by nature, nurture or both, Doogie was pretty well programmed to be a caring parent. He could not have done less for his kids and lived with himself.
George’s stepson and his wife came to visit us several years ago. George was the only father-figure Skipper remembered from his mother’s marriages. Skipper, the oldest of three children by three different fathers, functioned as the adult in the family for most of his childhood. From what we saw of his marriage, he’d picked up his mother’s ways of controlling a relationship. He’d also picked up her binge-spending habit. Finally, his wife divorced him. How much agency did Skipper really have? He certainly didn’t choose a childhood that left him emotionally scarred.
Choice is limited by many things not under our control—intelligence, talent, physical and mental health, control by others, poverty. Certainly a person with an IQ of 120 has a far greater range of choices than someone functioning at 80. My friend with chronic lung disease is limited in where she can go and what kind of work she can do. People under totalitarian governments have limited access to information. In many cultures, people cannot choose whom to marry. People in third world countries lack the opportunity to choose education or employment.
Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that the concentration camp guards could control everything in his life except his mind. But—Frankl’s mind was formed decades before he entered the concentration camp. Had that kind of brutality been forced upon him as a child, how much control over his own mind would he have achieved?
And how much choice does a kid have if he’s taught to fear Satan and told he’d be under an evil influence if he steps from the straight and narrow?
Despite the abundance of scriptures on agency, more often I find myself on the determinist rather than the free will page. In the end, I suppose it behooves us all to avoid judging since we cannot possibly know another person’s circumstances nor guess at how much agency that person actually enjoys.