"For there is a God and He hath created all things,... both things to act and things to be acted upon."
"Wherefore God gave unto man that he should act for himself."
Two of the most important intangible possessions I think a person can have are purpose and autonomy. Purpose is the feeling that you matter and your actions create positive repercussions; autonomy is the feeling that you are in control of your own life.
William Glassner, in his book Reality Therapy, lists several fundamental emotional needs and the need to be useful was particularly meaningful to me. At 20 I already felt Erikson's need for generativity and I think essentially we all have that need regardless of age. It is really our relationships to other people and society that gives our existence meaning. I am sister, daughter, therapist, friend, etc. It is my impact in those relationships that gives me purpose. I have to change my world to find my place in it. It's the way I say, "Hey, make room, I'm here to participate." In fact, it is not feeling a part of things that leads to depression and even suicide. I attended a conference this year and, among other factors like access to means and ability to withstand pain, feeling like people don't need you was perhaps that most important factor in a suicide attempt. We need more than connection, we need to feel needed. We are a system and the system influences all parts and we need to know that we are influencing others - that we are acting upon our world.
So if we are to influence and shape our world, it means that others are also influencing and shaping us. In direct opposition to that fact is our need to be independent. Autonomy is essential to everything from the creative process to happiness to self-reliance. We need to feel free to act in order to act our best, our most powerful, our most innovative. Autonomy is essential what we call "agency." We lose autonomy when we are dominated by a parent, an authority, a system, or even influence. It's pretty obvious when a person or a system overtly dominates but I get very concerned about smaller, more subtle, even unintentional, domination. Let me explain. In high school, I liked myself some Gilmore Girls. And after I watched an episode I would talk much faster, because unless you've been hiding under a stupid rock you know that GG dialogue is fast. I was mirroring it (via my mirror neurons) and it was influencing me. People will say that they don't care what others think and that they are totally independent thinkers but that just isn't true. We are constantly influenced by everything around us from our friends to the weather to the books we read to movies we watch.
And that's really ok. We influence and we are influenced. But can I just make a confession? Often I trust others' opinions more than my own. I know not everyone does this, but sometimes I just doubt myself. It's very bold and maybe even a little arrogant for one to belief one is always right. And so I find myself influenced and somehow certain that I have it wrong and "it" should be another way. I felt I was an inevitable pawn. However, just a few months ago something occurred to me while I was in therapy as the therapist (Yalom says to see therapist and client as "fellow travelers" so I'm free to work out some of my own crap in session) that ultimately it was my client's life and he could do whatever he wanted; and, alternately, it is my life and I can do as I please regardless of the opinions, recommendations, and assertions of whom/whatever. I am the creator. I have the God-given ability and responsibility to look at the influences around me and pick and chose what I will assimilate. I know this sounds obvious and you're maybe judging me (for shame!) for stating the obvious, but I'm not sure we really do understand that we can act for ourselves. I mean, I've been telling parents for years, "You have to do what works for your family" and it only just now sunk in that I have the same right and responsibility. Buddha said (supposedly), "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it - even if I said it - unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." When we take the influences around us and make the deliberate choice to assimilate or not, that is true autonomy. So if I want to be a working mom, shave my head, write a blog, invest money, be religious, see a movie, whatever - I get to design my own life. And when I look around my home and I think about my life I say, in the words of Peter Pan, "Aye, Hook, this is all my doing!"
And so we can create purpose in our relationships by influence AND create autonomy by choosing what will influence us. When people do this effectively they are most happy because, as Henley said, "You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul."