Wednesday, October 28, 2009

be the ground lying under that sky (reflections on agency and a poem)

Sometime during the development of my feminist sensibilities, I discovered the concept of agency. And oh, what a wonderful word, what a brilliant and beautiful concept. Agency, as a feminist theoretical notion, refers to the fact that we as human beings have the freedom and ability to act and thus to overcome social pressures, stereotypes, inequality and so on to gain (more) equal power and value in society. This proves important in feminist thought because our agency can be overlooked or taken from us, as it often has been for women -- and when this occurs, it must be reclaimed.

Now because we have agency, we have hope. Yes, difficult circumstances and oppression do affect us, but at the same time, we have the capability and the freedom to push back and to make things different. Speaking specifically, then, of women, I do believe that even our oh-so-developed Western society is oppressive and sexist, ideologically and practically and institutionally. But I also believe that all of us have agency. We do not have to sit and passively resign ourselves to the current condition of our society.

What a notion. I love it.

And this concept of agency ties right into the Christian concept of free will. The last thing I want to do here is to jump into a deep theological discussion of free will and predestination (heavens no!), but I do want to make the connection: agency is a biblical concept as well as a feminist one. God gives us free will; we are not puppets on strings.

You might be asking why I bring this up tonight, so let me now tie this feminist/biblical notion into my life at present. As of the weekend, I had started feeling at peace about a certain possibility for my future. For one brief moment, I thought I knew what was right -- what I wanted, even. On Monday afternoon, however, the content of two unexpected emails completely negated that moment of peace. I found that I know nothing, not a thing. I found that I am afraid of things I thought I didn't fear. I found that the future remains encased in shadow.

And this happens every time, doesn't it? Things fit together; things come apart. Every once in awhile, life stops being confusing and complicated, but just for a split second, and then -- poof! -- the stability is gone.

As I was bemoaning the rebirth of my uncertainty, I began thinking about agency and free will, concepts that usually seem so wonderful to me. I love that God has given us freedom and responsibility, and I love the hope that agency provides in bleak circumstances, but how absolutely terrifying. If I'm being honest, often I just want open and closed doors, black like night and white like a dove, lines in the sand, letters carved in tree trunks and words traced out in the clouds. Tonight is one of those times. Tonight, I want security and answers and stability. Tonight, I am so afraid of my agency.

But I am not one to let fear stand in my way, and I hope that the same is true of you. So join me, dear ones, and let us grasp this agency, this free will, this beautiful freedom that we have, even when we are afraid.

This weekend, a dear friend scribbled the following poem on the back of a pair of receipts and passed it along to me, telling me she thought I would appreciate it. I liked it very much when first I read it, but it strikes even more deeply tonight. I hope it means something to you also.

Dich wundert nicht des Sturmes Wucht
by Rainer Maria Rilke

You are not surprised at the force of the storm--
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees' blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.


  1. Pretty interesting. I was actually just talking to my sister last night about what I guess you would call the agency of women. She was wondering about the roles of men and women in relationships, and she was coming from a pretty traditionally Christian perspective. Don't worry, I set her right. I really appreciated that poem at the end.

    You are quite the existential.

  2. Via Wall Street Journal

    "A former Anheuser-Busch Cos. executive who for years served as the company's public voice against critics has sued the beer giant for discrimination, saying she was paid less than male executives and that the company encouraged a "frat party" atmosphere."