There is an experiment in learned helplessness. A dog is put into a room where the floor gives them shocks. At first, when they get a shock on one side of the room, they move to the other side to avoid the punishment. If the whole room is electrified, but there is a button to deactivate the floor, the dogs learn in a hurry to press the button. But if you take away the button, they just lie on the floor, and cause themselves even more pain. They give up and accepted their fate. Even when they’re given the opportunity to escape, they don’t. They’ve already learned to be helpless.
Given the self-isolation reality many (most?) of us are living with right now, there’s more articles about how to stay connected when your usual social avenues are grounded. There are more articles about handing stress, how to settle the panic that’s a hair-trigger away from taking over, how to find and develop community. What seems like ages ago (but was really just weeks ago) campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk, or Not Myself Today (at work) have churned out more articles about research around depression and anxiety. There has been a steady stream of adverts about how to weather the Covid storm not just from a physical health perspective, but a mental health perspective as well. And every time there’s a conversation or a campaign about mental health, I think about this experiment.
So why am I thinking about learned helplessness today? One of this year’s goals was to spend less time on my tech, and I’m not having success with that right now. I watched news of kids on spring break thinking COVID-19 was a joke, calling it BoomerRemover, and blowing off concerns with YOLO. At least 5 of those kids were confirmed with C-19. The Angry Cheeto in Chief just said he wants to open the US back for business in 3 weeks. “Because why not?” Because… wha… why?? And he’s serious. Evangeline Lily is still calling this “a respiratory flu” and wandering around taking her kids to gymnastics camp. Because why not? There’s a girl who proudly posted video of herself licking spoons before she put them in a fast food restaurant dispensary. Like it’s just a gross joke, not gross negligence.
It’s easy to slip into learned helplessness right now with that kind of attitude still gleefully skipping around. It’s not even cavalier. It’s flat out ignorant. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Once you find yourself in a dark place, or faced with flat out life-threatening decisions that will affect you (not even *might*), curling up on that floor makes sense to you. Your broken logic tells you this is as good as it gets, so why struggle against it? Just lay down. You don’t have the strength or the vision or the energy to find the button, so you lay on the floor. The hurt continues, but that’s all you have.
This Lent, when I see someone struggling, may I find ways to keep them from laying down in that terrible room. This Lent, and beyond, may we all work toward a place where there is never a room without a button.
Good health, friends.