On Being a Cog

Often we look at what is going on around us and we get overwhelmed at these huge systems that need so much fixing. We tend to take a stance in our language as though they are broken machines on a table in front of us needing to be fixed, or else these engulfing mechanisms in which we are trapped, whirring to some other purpose than our own. These two perspectives often feed each other. We look at them as though we are outside them, then we carry that sense of disempowerment back into them and get caught up in the narrative of being a cog in the machine (or whatever story most speaks to us in that context).

But we ARE embedded in them, not as mechanical parts but as persons with agency in relationship with other persons with agency*. So instead, let’s change the language and thus the story. Let us choose to remind ourselves that we can moment to moment choose who and how we will be in that system in a way that promotes a net flourishing for every other person our lives touch. That is a story all of us have the power to embody.

Rather than “There is so much wrong with these systems of systems and I can’t possibly fix this” try instead “As part of these systems, I can decide to be someone who improves the parts of the system that touch my life.” There is a wholeness that comes from moving out of a fear- or overwhelm- based relationship to the responsibility of agency and into an empowered stance, situated in yourself, aware of your context and the impact you can have on it.

What is the “how” that you want to describe your life? Do you want to make choices compassionately? Lovingly? Independently? Nurturingly? Creatively? Constructively? Authentically? Enjoyably? Perhaps there are different “hows” (or adverbs) for different tasks and relationships and circumstances. That’s ok, too! These “hows” can act as our guiding values as we engage with the world and form a stance from which to move into action in ways that support helpful outcomes for all persons involved.

Let us take a moment when we find ourselvrs living these old stories of overwhelm or disempowerment to take a deep breath. Ask yourself the “how” that describes the way you want to engage with your agency as you move forward. Then choose one single thing you can do to act in line with that how as you move forward and do it. This is the capacity to effect change which no one and nothing can remove from us.

*Agency here is speaking of our capacity as individuals to make decisions; it is not denying in this context the constraints imposed on free decisions by the structural and systemic factors in which we are embedded. Rather, it is simultaneously acknowledging that those constraints exist and considering that very embeddedness as one source of our capacity to exert power and achieve our ends.

I want to be very clear that I know that systemic factors of racism, cishet-normativity, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, religious and cultural discrimination ALL act to constrain us. This is not a “just think pretty thoughts and then you have the power” philosophy of personal empowerment bullshit. It is a simple practice that can help us recognize the places where we stand in control of ourselves. I cannot necessarily change the verbs of my life- the actions I am required to take to function and stay alive as the person I am in the world, at least not past a certain point. But I can change the adverbs, the way I go about doing the actions, to be in line with what is most important to me and what will help achieve the outcomes I want for myself and other people.