Updated: Jul 15
A better title for this post is Useful, but it’s not as attention-grabbing.
One of the greatest contributors to our sense of self-worth is how useful we are in the situations in which we find ourselves. Decent people want to contribute to just causes around them. Good employees want to be valuable to their employers. Dedicated parents want to be effective in raising mature, stable adults.
Let me tell you an exciting story. About year ago, my dentist told me that one of my molars needed a crown. He would first have to drill off the top of my affected tooth. He said he would numb me so the procedure wouldn’t hurt.
That wasn't sufficiently appealing to me.
I asked if he could also prescribe for me a sedative to calm my nerves because I get anxious when sharp metal objects are jabbed into my mouth. My dentist said he didn’t prescribe meds, but he offered to give me nitrous oxide instead.
Well, that sounded interesting.
Nitrous oxide is also known as laughing gas. I’d never experienced laughing gas.
My enthusiastic dentist said, “The nitrous oxide will give you the cleanest high you’ve ever had.”
I've always wondered what it would be like to be high.
The dentist strapped a breathing apparatus across my nose and said, “Breathe slowly and deeply.” He stepped away and a few minutes passed before he came back. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t feel any different," I said. "Shouldn’t something be happening?”
The dentist turned a knob somewhere behind me and left me alone for a few more minutes. He came back with his assistant and they started setting up for the procedure.
“I still don’t feel any different,” I said, becoming increasingly nervous.
He ignored me and started with the shots of Novocain, or whatever it was. They hurt terribly! I was agitated and miserable, and not in a laughing mood at all.
Then they started the drilling.
I was aware of everything. I was not happy. I did not feel calm. I didn't laugh.
Then I noticed something. The words spoken between the dentist and his assistant were out of order. They were only in pieces. “Be si thym, lef to.” “Number three sentimen.” I noticed that instead of asking me to “open wider” or “turn left,” the dentist put something in my mouth to keep it open. He turned my head left or right with his hands without bothering to ask me to do so.
I had become useless.
I had never experienced such a state. I was of no use to myself or to anyone else. The gas did not make me feel good. I was no more relaxed than before receiving it. Worse, I could do nothing about what was happening to me, which depressed me terribly.
This must be what it feels like to be entirely dependent on others, I thought. I felt badly and vowed never to allow myself to be in such a situation again.
These thoughts went through my head as I sat there in a helpless state.
I realize there are car accidents, afflictions, disorders, and strokes that attack people’s capabilities and characters, and I may be under such a condition someday. But I will never again voluntarily put myself in such a state.
I had allowed my dentist to take my agency from me.
The concept of agency needs to be talked about much more in this country and around the world. Agency is our freedom to make choices in our lives. Agency is liberty. Sometimes our agency can be taken away. We can be kidnapped or severely injured or killed. But today, this week, and this year, I choose not to do anything that will limit my agency.
Anxiety, poor self-esteem, and hopelessness come from feeling out-of-control. Addictions hamper our agency. Destructive emotional habits such as impatience and chronic cynicism limit us. Unnecessary financial debt steals freedom. Short-term gratification usually causes a loss of long-term satisfaction and security.
We cannot always protect ourselves from what comes our way. But let’s not choose to bring weakness upon ourselves.
Becoming financially, physically, and emotionally self-sustaining may require years of dedicated work. But no matter how long it takes, gaining this freedom is one of the most important battles in our lives.
Seek the advice of those around you who understand the principle of agency.
Stop doing whatever it is that limits your agency. Stop spending too much money, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, or habitually getting angry at the slightest provocation.
Imagine ways your life can be better and then commit to changing your life to make those life improvements possible.
Strengthen the relationships with your parents and with your children.
Rather than setting goals, permanently change attributes in your life. In lieu of checking off a list of accomplishments, the idea is to improve your character.
Instead of, “I will stop smoking,” let it be, “I detest smoking and am repulsed by it.”
Instead of, “I will come to work on time,” let it be, “I am a superior employee.”
Instead of, "I will spend more time with my kids," let it be, "I will be a better father."
Instead of, "I will lose 20 pounds," let it be, "I will be stronger and more energetic and capable."
Goals are critically important tools, but they can become our oppressive masters unless we become better people who take better care of ourselves and others naturally. It may likely take us years to achieve this objective, our characters will be vastly improved, and we will no longer be inclined to behave in ways that hurt us or those around us.
We cannot control every aspect of our lives. But we can improve in one way at a time. Then one day, perhaps when we have gray hair and walk with a stoop, we’ll look back and say, “That's how it’s done.”