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Reclaiming our agency

Let’s stop clinging to the self-defeating narrative that we’re powerless to bridge our ideological divides and to build consensus. How about restoring our belief in ourselves and each other instead?

Last month, protesters on two sides of the abortion debate clashed in the Iowa State Capitol rotunda while the Iowa Legislature convened for a special session to pass a six-week 'fetal heartbeat' abortion ban.Zach Boyden-Holmes/Associated Press

Wendell Berry was right.

In 1970, the naturalist, poet, and farmer wrote of his fear that for too many Americans, the environmental movement would, like the civil rights and peace movements before it, “be a public cause . . . inflated for a while by a lot of public talk in the media, only to be replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis.” I believe it is now the turn of American division, by which I mean this country’s allegedly irreconcilable differences — our collective and individual failure, including that of our political leaders, to build consensus in this nation.


And I’m sick of it.

I’ve seen and heard too many stories about how polarized we are and far too few about who is to blame and how to fix it. As Berry also contended, “There is no public crisis that is not also private.” In other words, too many of us believe we have too little ability to help solve the big problems of our time.

I’m sick of that, too.

A wise friend once advised me that “people believe what you tell them, so be careful what you tell them.” I think too many Americans are telling ourselves that we lack agency, and too many of us are believing it, especially with regard to this country’s polarized politics.

I almost always get blank stares when I use the word “agency” in this sense — I’m referring to our individual capacity to act in ways that effect change. I’ve been arguing with agency deniers for years, rejecting their allegations that our ideological divides are unbridgeable; I think too many Americans are unwilling to try bridging them.

We’ve now had two Great Resignations in this country, the first in that wave of Americans who quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic for reasons we’re still debating and the second in the untold number who’ve given up any attempt to seek unity. (Forget how few of us seem to believe it can still be found.) The biggest factor is probably the incessant parroting of extremist views by pundits, the media, and the apps on the devices we’re all so transfixed by in this Information Age. The world is not just changing — and in ways that feel bigger than ever — but these days we hear about that change constantly, as opposed to the way my parents did when I was growing up: once a day on the nightly news.


Don’t get me started on what makes the news now. There’s far too much opinion that’s allowed to pass for journalism without caveat, to say nothing of clickbait and alarmist headlines that tend to lure bigger audiences than hopeful narratives do.

When people find out I’m a reporter, many of them gripe: “Why can’t the media tell more positive stories?!”

The adage “if it bleeds it leads” has become tragically trite in the age of daily mass shootings. We’ve gone numb from the firehose of history-making shock after shock. There’s been too paltry and meek an attempt by our society to quantify how many people actually hold the irrational, hateful, racist, or otherwise repulsive views that the rest of us are reluctant, at best, to try to understand.

We have to stop waiting for someone else to come along and put those views in their place.


I’m tired of watching so many people, old and young, educated and less so, financially secure and not, including some of those I love and admire, all getting along until the subject of politics comes up. Then minds clamp shut so hard and fast as to invite the question: What are we really guarding from each other, or so afraid of revealing in ourselves?

It doesn’t even depend on whom you ask anymore; the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that our country is less great than ever. I’ve lost track of how many people I know, of all political persuasions, who lived through the calamities of the ’60s and ’70s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bloody Sunday in Selma, the Kennedy and King and Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, and the Vietnam War, and who have told me they’ve never been more afraid for the future of America.

I think we have to stop telling ourselves that we’re powerless to come together. That our differences are too extreme to bother looking for common ground. I think each of us has vast agency, for better and worse, in the countless decisions we make every day that we’re wont to tell ourselves don’t matter or the actions we’re choosing not to take.

I hoped the pandemic would prove this unequivocally and unforgettably. Remember those eerie photographs of empty streets in some of the world’s biggest cities during lockdowns, when most of us made the decision to abide by restrictions and stay home to help keep one another safe? Unfortunately, too many of us also emptied supermarket shelves, panic-buying toilet paper to spare ourselves from uncertainty at the expense of others.


More than 50 years ago, Berry held that the environmental movement would fail unless it was both a public and private cause. He believed the greatest form of personal involvement was to produce one’s own food. “A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home . . . has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us.” Gardening, he added, can sharpen our sense of dependence on the world “enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful.” His suggestion strikes me as a hopeful metaphor and a starting point for an agency movement.

Our local interactions and conversations are gardens of a sort, where we can begin to sow our own consensus. We can listen differently, by seeking understanding instead of waiting for our turn to speak. We can acknowledge the fact that no one knows everything, instead of setting ideological traps for those we assume are less informed. We can look for common ground beneath the issues, where our views have relatable personal and maybe even universal roots. We can try coexistence instead of fear and see where that takes us. We can start taking more of the chances we get every day to connect with our fellow humans, especially those we know we disagree with.


I’m not downplaying the real dangers of deception, bigotry, and other potential landmines. Likewise, I know that exercising one’s agency can feel impossible for the marginalized or oppressed. To be sure, there is too much that’s unequal and out of balance in our society, but to help fix any of that and to continue the work of past movements, we first have to decide that each of us can.

What if we all set our minds against division and thought of disagreement as a starting point for discussion, not a reason to end it?

Shannon A. Mullen is the author of “In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year.” She is also a journalist for national programs on public radio, a screenwriter and film producer, and cohost of the podcast “Character.”