Helpless No Longer

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A few minutes after I hit Send on yesterday’s reflection – the one concerning sports mascots, which included the point that no major school’s team is represented by sheep – I myself was taken to school by several readers.  

The “Dirtbags” are the mascot of Cal State Long Beach, not Cal State Fullerton (which I now know to be the Titans).  Likewise, my friend Rich McDermott of Colorado reminded me that the Colorado State University Rams are actually bighorn sheep – and those who compete for nearby Fort Collins High School are known as the Lambkins (although the football players prefer to be addressed as the Black Sheep). 

Thanks to everyone for keeping me on the straight and narrow.  What can I say?  I feel sheepish. 

To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here
One of life’s most dispiriting mindsets is the deeply felt conviction that we are powerless to affect the direction of our own lives. 
Psychologists call it “learned helplessness.” 
We’ve just passed the 60th anniversary of a breakthrough experiment that shed a great deal of light on this phenomenon. 
Researchers compelled a number of penned-up dogs to hear a particular tone, immediately after which they received an electric shock.  The intent was that the dogs would associate the shock with the tone.  After a while the dogs were placed in another pen, one which they could easily escape if they simply hopped over a wall.  The experimenters wanted to see what would happen if they sounded the tone.  They presumed that the dogs, which now expected a jolt of electricity, would do everything they could to run away.
Instead, the dogs did just the opposite.  They laid down in their pens and whimpered, waiting for the inevitable shock.  Even though the dogs were one jump away from safety, they had concluded that they were helpless victims.  There was nothing they could do to change their condition. 
The discovery of this “learned helplessness” led to a significant amount of research into the nature of depression and fear in human beings. 
Many of us have falsely concluded, for one reason or another, that we are helpless – that the future is never going to be different from the past.  We are going to experience the same old pain, and there is nothing we can do about it.
In her book Generations, Jean Twenge notes that this mindset seems to have settled on many of those in Gen Z, Americans born between 1995 and 2012.
A majority of Gen Z teens agree with the statements, “People like me don’t have much of a chance to be successful in life,” and, “Every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me.”
What’s puzzling is that this group feels deeply disappointed that women don’t seem to have the same opportunities to earn college degrees as men – even though females have earned more four-year degrees than males since 1982, a trend that continues to accelerate.  Twenge observes, “As more and more women were walking across the stage getting their bachelor’s degrees, more and more teen girls believed that the cards were stacked against them in getting a college education.” 
The mindset of disillusionment, in other words, often leads us to overlook the facts.   
Learned helplessness is related to the notion of “external locus of control.”  If I think that my life comes down to sheer luck or to what powerful people have decided to do to me – in other words, if I think that my fate is being determined out there somewhere, and not by my own choices – then I have an external locus of control.
And my life is probably going to feel miserable.   
It’s no surprise that hopelessness tends to swamp people who have very little control over their lives – prisoners of war, for instance, and those interred in concentration camps.
But there are remarkable exceptions.  Those who survive such settings tend be the prisoners who believe they can still make choices, and still have good reasons to stay alive.  Even if they have little to no power to influence their food, accommodations, or treatment, they retain the freedom to choose how they will respond.
And that freedom can be transforming.
Psychologist Julius Segal has documented what happens when residents of nursing homes are presented with a spectrum of choices.  If a resident is free to decide when (or if) to see a movie, or how to arrange their own room, their spirits are strengthened.  According to Segal, they are also less likely to die. 
What’s the opposite of learned helplessness?
It’s learned trust.  
On the pages of Scripture, David is a prime example of someone who learns from experience that he isn’t helpless, even in the face of long odds.  Specifically, he learns that God will always be his help.  He  writes, in one of the psalms attributed to him, “You Lord, keep my lamp burning.  My God turns my darkness into light.  With your help I can advance against a troop.  With my God I can scale a wall!” (Psalm 18:28-29).
It may be, like those dogs in the lab experiments, that we have associated certain circumstances with our own helplessness for so long that we can’t imagine feeling happy or free again.
But God beckons us to trust him. 
God is bigger than whatever we’re facing.  God is bigger than our dumbest decisions.  God is bigger than our failures.  God is bigger than depression and loneliness.  God is bigger than our fear that all is lost. 
And because he’s in charge of the cosmos, he’s the One who can set us free to live in hope.