Agent or Victim? — Asking for Help as Taking Control

We kid ourselves that we are in control of our lives, on a moment to moment basis or even in the grander scale of things. We follow ‘life hacks’, self-improvement gurus, and psychologists to be ‘centred’ and in control. And when we find that in fact we have no control at all, we abrogate that control to a deity or belief system — and still believe that this super being or cosmic forces can be influenced in some way by what we do. But what we have to realise is that we can change the world and can reclaim agency and control over what happens to us — by changing the way we perceive those circumstances and recognising we do have a part to play, if we reclaim it.

So two weeks ago I found myself in a government office in Bavaria, the woman behind the desk having no English and me no German, telling me through Google Translate that I had to immediately pay in excess of €8,000 to get my brother’s body back to the UK.

We’d known for over two years that my brother had terminal cancer and so in some respects could prepare ourselves for the inevitable. He did in fact live a lot longer with the condition than the initial prognosis had indicated. We were told (though now, we don’t know whether true) on more than one occasion that the tumour had shrunk or was stable. This was the case before his ill-fated and in-advised trip to Austria. We knew only sketchy details about the trip — that he was going to get some kind of ‘holistic’ therapy, that his ‘friends’ were meeting all his costs, but we had no idea where he actually was. Attempts to contact him were stymied — not answering his phone or email. And then we get a phone call from one of these ‘friends’ to say he had only days to live, and was in a clinic in Munich.

We found out after his death that he was brought from Salzburg to Munich in an ambulance accompanied by a doctor — we don’t know the name of the doctor or why he was taken to Munich and not simply repatriated while he was still fit to travel. One of the doctors who treated him in Bavaria told us that when he arrived at the clinic he wasn’t rational — he was living in a fantasy world. Decisions were being made for him by people we don’t know and now can’t trace, having melted away leaving the family with thousands of pounds in costs and expenses.

The treatment he received in Munich was second to none, we are incredibly grateful for the efforts they made for him and us in his last days. But we were not there by choice, and it would seem, nor was my brother. We can’t second-guess, especially now, the decisions he made before the tumour ate into his reason. We can’t question those people who made the later decisions for him, because we simply don’t know who they were.

Back in the office, the official tells me that I should contact the British Consulate to see if the body should be embalmed. I give them a call, and explain the situation. The vice consul comes on the phone, tells me basically to get the hell out of there — I was being railroaded. Don’t sign anything, don’t agree to anything. He sends through an email to explain what we need to do, and tells me to lean on the insurance company to get things sorted now even if they won’t ultimately cover the expenses.

It was such a relief to leave that place. Suddenly I was empowered, and from being totally out of any control over what was happening, I had some agency back. I had to wait then for about three hours for the insurance company to get their act together — but now it looks like everything is in place for the funeral, and hopefully we can sort out the rest of the business without too many problems.

Even the illusion of being in control can be enormously helpful. But are we really the victims of the cosmos, just waiting for the next random event to be done to us? Well, no. We do have some agency. The one element we can ultimately control is how we react to circumstances, and how we perceive things can have some reverse reflection on the thing we call Reality. To assume victimhood presupposes that Fate is out there to get us — and this is just as deluded as believing that there is some super being out there who can help us. The only thing we are the victims of is entropy, the same as everything else in the universe. All we can do is try not to make it worse for others, and control our own perception and realisation of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Part of the realisation of personal agency is recognising that we need help, and deciding to ask for it. Our reality is moulded by us but influenced by those around us. Receiving help in this way is not an abrogation of responsibility or a failure — it is restoring strength, and the help we receive acknowledges that when the time comes we will be there to return that help to those that need it. Even prayer could be seen to be an expression of this realisation. But how can talking to a possibly non-existent deity help us? It can help the believer if it helps to move them from victim to agent. Waiting around for a supernatural answer to the prayer probably isn’t going to help anybody — but if it assists them to feel like they are doing something that make a difference and makes them receptive to help or taking action themselves, then isn’t that an answer to the prayer?

Sometimes it is just as hard to accept help from ourselves as from others. We have to realise and recognise that help can come from a multitude of sources, including within. A cry for help is not the last resort of the hopeless, but the first positive action of the hopeful.




Tomahawk thrower, writer, trade unionist, Japanese speaker and all around good guy. For fiction, please go to

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Michael Abberton

Michael Abberton

Tomahawk thrower, writer, trade unionist, Japanese speaker and all around good guy. For fiction, please go to

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