There comes a time when it just seems easier to give up than to keep on trying. Some of us have more stamina and keep on keeping on. Some of us have already given up and laid our burdens down. Some of us find ourselves at the intersection, unsure which way to turn and frozen in our inability to make a decision. This is what it is to be helpless.
There are many factors that contribute to this. COVID-19, the economy, race relations, lack of leadership by politicians and those appointed to government positions, abuse of power by some, disregard for the health and welfare of sentient beings, frantic appeals for help from all corners, and sense of dread as we watch the disintegration of institutions once believed to be eternal, environmental decline and neglect. All of these are evidence of the overwhelming number of challenges to the familiar and preferred way of being in the world.
Strategies that were once immediate and unquestioned in their efficacy now prove impotent, no matter how many iterations are attempted. Expectations of normalcy returning are dashed daily. No amount of alcohol, weed, or binge-watching shows can dull the angst that lies beneath the surface. This is hopelessness.
In 1967, Martin Seligman, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a ground-breaking (and heart breaking) experiment that showed how mammals (in this case dogs) respond to what is known as “aversive stimulus”. The experiment was brilliant in its design. The dog was placed in a small cage that had no escape. The floor of the cage was wired such that one half could be turned on, resulting in the animal seeking to find relief by escaping the shocks. At first, the animal was able to find safety on the other half of the cage. But then the other side was turned on, and the animal had to seek safety elsewhere. Again, in searching for it, the animal sought refuge on the other side. As the experiment continued, with each side providing shocks alternatively but without predicable results, the animal “learned” that both sides were potentially sources of electric shock and it just gave up trying all together. Seligman coined the term, “learned helplessness”.
Learned helplessness is found in communities of color, colonized peoples around the world, and in our current experience of living in a pandemic. It is experienced by aging adults who are living their lives in skilled nursing facilities, and who are living independently, but are isolated due to lack of mobility, transportation, and connection with others physically and virtually. There is nowhere left to turn that is safe.
In subsequent experiments, it was determined that learned helplessness is not a permanent condition. Once choice is restored and trust re-established, humans can find ways to return to functioning and participate fully. The path to achieving this, however, takes effort and support. This is known as hope.
This weekend is Summer Solstice. The longest day of the year. The balance point between light and dark. For many of us, it is also a balance point measuring our capacity to persist in the face of on-going stressors. In ancient times there was no guarantee that life would be easy or long. Danger and death were daily companions. To manage the stress of that reality, humans gathered together for support. Rituals were created and conducted that strengthened these bonds. Out of this essential bonding, meaning was made of things that appeared random and wondrous. The stars became sources of story as well as prediction. Seasons, tides, and other earth-based events became markers of stability that could be depended on and measured for the benefit of all.
What was once experienced by so many of us as quaint tales of yore, are now daily realities that, like Martin Seligman’s experiment, are contributing to learned helplessness. Yet, there is more and more evidence that we are finding ways to counter these aversive stimuli. Creativity and heartfelt connection are the keys to managing the distress and keeping present.
The promise of change that has arisen as a consequence of the protests after the murder of George Floyd and the traction gained in confronting our racism in the United States is hopeful. Medical personnel continue to provide care to those infected with the COVID virus and epidemiologists and researchers are hard at work searching for a vaccine. I am hopeful their collective efforts will result in a decrease in deaths and possibly prevention of the virus in the future. Technology has given us opportunities to stay connected in creative ways. While it will never replace human touch, it is a valuable and necessary tool to bridge the gaps caused by social distancing.
We may not be able to control our situation at this moment, but we are not condemned to being helpless and hopeless. To be filled with wonder is to be present. When the present is filled with the wonder of nature, of song, of the experience of being loved, fear is unable to find a foothold. (Check out this wonderful rendition of “If Ye Love Me” on FaceBook).
It is vital that we continue to seek ways of connecting. It is essential that we participate in rituals that affirm our humanity. It is inevitable that we will make our way through these challenging times and emerge changed. I have hope.
“This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath.” Margaret Atwood.