September 17, 2021
Living without agency depletes your life force.
2020 began with a pop that fizzled and went bang within a few short weeks as an unprecedented surge of new cascading traumas set in motion. The Covid 19 pandemic, economic recession, racial trauma, social unrest and weather-related disasters swept across the world. The mental health consequences of direct media informed exposure to compounding stress factors were palpable. I remember my step-daughter, who was nine years old at the time, quietly asking, “Can we please turn the TV off? The news is making my heartache.” We did. As parents and guardians of children, it was our job to protect the vulnerable. And to protect the vulnerable meant that we needed to remain mentally and emotionally healthy too.
As lockdowns continued, a sense of safety and peace was sustained by minimising exposure to the deluge of doom. Stories of looming disasters had informed the previous years. Climate activists alerted us to the terror of a world about to end, burdened by too many living souls, overconsumption and greed. “We are running out of time.” and “How dare you.” The message was clear; the children were not happy with the grown-ups. “You have stolen our childhood.” These warnings touched on some uncomfortable truths. The older generation was neither valued nor respected by a younger generation who saw them as a burden they no longer wanted to carry.
Collective trauma is not new. Our understanding of its impact is getting better. We know that collective trauma can rumble on down the line and will pass from one generation to the next. Decades of research on collective trauma suggest that each of these crises may independently have mental health consequences for exposed individuals, ranging from short-term anxiety to longer-term depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And we know from empirical data that exposure to a lifetime of adversity is associated with greater difficulty in coping with subsequent stressors. Indeed, the more stress we experience early on in life, the more likeliness of later distress, functional impairment and reduced life satisfaction. It is also true that a certain degree of stress can be beneficial. It builds resilience. Low levels of adversity may teach us what coping skills are helpful.
With this in mind, when cascading collective traumas meet and unite, the historical and current, we must ask questions about what we might expect of the future. What are the long-term effects of Crisis Fatigue? Is it a sustainable and healthy way to live?
The Price of Sacrifice.
To feel fully alive and filled with energy is our birth right. The constant calls to each new unfolding crisis demand that we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others. It is a noble cause that will immediately pull on the conscience of those who have learned from an early age to devote their life to tending to the needs, cares, desires, and goals of others at the expense of their own. If you live your life without agency, you will invariably end up suffering in some way. It may be physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or it may be that your relationships take the hit. Suppose you spend a greater portion of your life concerned with how everything you do will impact others or the future of the planet’s survival? Then you are sacrificing yourself—an unnamed, unrecognised martyr to a cause that began billions of years ago.
Since humans first walked this earth, we have lived in fear of the end of the world. Annihilation is a deep fear for many, and so too is a desire to prevent death and suffering. Typically, we tend to take rather dramatic and drastic steps to alleviate a crisis whilst inadvertently creating new problems as a result.
When our good deeds for others define our sense of wellbeing, and the feedback we receive about being good for sacrificing ourselves for others becomes a form of social currency, it will eventually drain our vitality, energy and lifeforce.
It did not start with you.
These patterns of self-sacrifice often begin in our family of origin. A child who subconsciously learns that they must carry the burden of the parents, guardians, adults or other family members is living without agency. The child learns that their survival is dependent on them protecting others and putting others needs before their own. Subconsciously, the child may have picked up a sense that other family members were emotionally needy, so they try to come to the rescue. If left untended, this pattern of belief becomes a pattern that can continue into the adult years.
Some children learn that a mother needed their help because she was depressed, anxious, single, stressed, busy, or emotionally needy. Or it may be that the child’s father was physically absent, or he too was emotionally needy. Perhaps the child felt it was their role to mediate family dramas and disputes. They may have learnt to be the funny one, the peacemaker, or the hero to distract from family tension. A child may also learn to sacrifice themselves and their wellbeing to take up the burden of unresolved emotional family trauma through epigenetic inheritance.
The child is not only subconsciously seeking a resolution to a lack of balance in the family system. They are naturally disposed to carry the same pattern out into the world and seek to fix the world’s problems. Blind to their core needs, they desire to put the needs of others before their own, they struggle to connect with their true self, and they are unable to live a fully expressed life.
When we pull focus and look at the wider world, we find that millions of people are living without agency. A lack of agency is not just a wound of the individual; it is also a wound of the system. When there is a lack of agency, there is not just the desire to help others by sacrificing the self; each new crisis carries the potential to ignite fear, anxiety, a sense of lack, despair and fatigue.
Everywhere we look, the symptom of crisis fatigue can be seen and felt. Fatigue carries with it grief, a sense of loss. Grief is often standing behind anger, frustration, rage, depression and other critical mental health issues.
Even if it costs me my life
For those living without agency, there is a notable lack of ability to put their needs first. It is not unusual for them to say I will do this until x, y or z changes. There is a constant putting off or delay in attending to what they want or need. It also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, being taken advantage of, or coerced into taking further steps to sacrifice their wellbeing in favour of a ‘greater cause.’ History shows us that many ‘great causes’ designed to alleviate a crisis drove an atrocity that seeded another collective trauma.
The body keeps the score.
Our body has a memory; it stores our experiences. Our bodies can shake with laughter and tremble with fear. When we recall the memory, we can remember the feeling. When we live without agency, the body will feel a sense of anger, resentment, internalised rage that accumulates over time. There may be rage and envy when we see others unwilling to make the kind of self-sacrifice we believe is ‘right’ and virtuous. Some may even think that those who do not sacrifice as they do are selfish, inconsiderate or have a low sense of moral and civic duty.
Living without agency robs you of wellbeing and vitality. Eventually, this inner dis-ease will manifest itself through body symptoms and chronic illness. You will feel hard done by and resent those who seemingly have more.
The problems in society mirror the issues we see in families.
Back to the future
As individuals, we are part of the system of society, and we are part of the system of nature. We are interdependent; your wellbeing supports the wellbeing of the other and the wellbeing of the planet. It is not possible to separate one from the other if we intend to alleviate the cycle of collective trauma and crisis.
In that case, it follows that we must tend to the impact of a repetitive crisis narrative. It is not necessary to turn a blind eye to challenges. It is helpful and necessary to engage narratives that encourage and are supportive, instead of ones that dissuade healthy engagement through shaming and blaming. We must recognise the need to build wellbeing into the systems that surround us.
Naturally, caring for future generations means thinking about the wellbeing of children today. The Children’s Commissioner for England has spoken to many children around the country and discovered that the primary concern of most children today is wellbeing and mental health.
If it is genuinely our intention to live in a healthy, vital world on a planet that is well supported, loved and nurtured, it starts with us. As parents, guardians, and elders, we are responsible for supporting mental health and wellbeing by addressing what needs to be resolved from the past first. I know from my work that the impact of this on the present and future outcomes are so effective most of my clients are amazed.
As we heal, the planet will heal along with us. If the owner of a farm wants to grow healthy crops that produce nutrient-dense foods, the first task of the farmer is to nurture the seeds and the soil simultaneously. Soil and seed are mutually dependant on the wellness of the other; it is a healthy model for society, business and life.