A week or so ago, I stood in my front yard watching a butterfly circling under a tree in front of the house. Over and over, it fluttered in one direction then seemed to circle back. It appeared, regardless of how hard it labored, it it ended up in the same place. When I stepped closer to see why this was happening, a ray of sunlight fell on a single silken thread, presumably from a spider’s web, that held fast to the thorax of the butterfly at one end, and to a leaf on the tree at the other. It was as if the butterfly had been placed on a leash from which it was unable to break free. A barely visible silken strand from the web of a spider denied it a flower on which to alight, requiring it to fly or simply hang suspended from the surprisingly strong thread. As hard as I tried to reach and break the thread, I could not. And so, the butterfly flies forever to the limits of its leash and back again until it dies of exhaustion. I discover butterflies who innocently find their way into our screened porch without a thought of finding a way out. Soon, they become the proverbial mime in the glass box as they discover the boundaries of their world suddenly shrunken. The unsuccessful efforts of moths, bees, and butterflies to escape the screens are evident on the floor below where they lie lifeless but, gloriously colorful.
I don’t know if butterflies and other insects are capable of despair but watching this struggle unfold, brought to mind the meaning of true helplessness which invariably leads to despair.
On our early morning walk last week, my wife and I spotted two women we often see headed in our direction. Each day I routinely say ‘good morning’ while they silently abandon the sidewalk for the street as we near one another. Early mornings in our neighborhood which surrounds a park are bustling with a diverse collection of walkers, runners, dog walkers, and bicyclists all doing their thing. It’s a generally friendly atmosphere and a “good morning” is an expected minimal courtesy. Today, as we approached the two women, I was completely taken aback by our encounter. They headed for the street and just after we passed, they stopped. One of them, turned to face our backs as we walked on and shouted, “You do this to us every day! You block our way and drive us off the walk!”. Her words were laden with vitriol and full of contempt and outrage. I was completely perplexed by what felt like an ambush. We share the sidewalk with scores of people every morning. In fact, I had been trying to earn a return “good morning” for weeks from these two, oblivious to their feeling driven from the sidewalk. I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed nervously thinking I have inaccurately heard what they said or misinterpreted it. My wife, who is more inclined to engage with a perceived assault, fired back, “You bitch!” I took her arm, steering us away and back to our walk disoriented by this early morning drama. You see, I need more time to process these sorts of entirely unexpected experiences. I think, “wait, what just happened? Why would they say that about us when I think we’re such nice people?” (True or not, this is what makes it hard to understand.) One of my professors stated in an evaluation many years back, “David doesn’t fire off insights, but needs to chew on his on his thoughts before responding.” So, when it finally registered what had just happened, I too thought, “Wow, what a bitch” long after they have passed. “So, they’re worried we’re going to infect them?” I asked Lynda. “Or did they think we were just being sidewalk hogs?”
Chewing on things for a while has not made me a keen debater and often leaves me thinking about all the clever things I might have said long after an event has passed. Still, I have come to believe, delayed reactions while one considers the vagaries of their situation can often be more asset than liability. Regarding the two women mentioned above, I appreciate that neither their accusations nor our response was calculated to resolve what apparently was for them a real problem. But surely it did not rise to the level of rendering either party helpless. For a brief time, it seemed as if we all believed that we were rendered helpless. But this was only because somewhere along the line we had learned that we were helpless to resolve a confrontation unless one party acquiesced.
The circumstances of the past several years has brought into focus the best and the worst of human behavior. It seems we are inclined to feelings of helplessness more often in more circumstances. I wonder if a major crisis, like the Covid pandemic chips away at our capacity to live for more than a very short time with pervasive uncertainty. Uncertainty, engenders anxiety which ultimately gives way to depression and what the psychologist, Martin Seligman, called ‘learned helplessness’. It’s a fascinating theory and very helpful for understanding many behaviors evoked by stressful circumstances. Seligman’s theory was shaped in part by a series of rather heartless experiments. In one of these, a box was built with a metal mesh floor. The box was divided into two compartments separated by physical boundary which was low enough for the dog to leap over if he/she chose to. The mesh on each side of the boundary was wired to deliver an uncomfortable electric shock. When a shock was delivered to the side where the dog was placed, the dog leapt over the boundary to the other side avoiding the discomfort. The dog was replaced back on the side the initial shock was delivered. Again, another shock and the dog jumped over the boundary. Time and again this proved to be the dog’s manner for managing this stressful experience. The rules of the game were then changed to deliver the shock on the other side and predictably the dog leapt over the boundary believing it would be safe. When shocks were delivered on both sides so there was no perceived manner of escape, the dog simply laid down and whined as the shocks were delivered. Yes, it does seem cruel but does illustrate something fundamental about behavior- animal or human.
Anticipating a negative impact creates anxiety and fosters a milieu in which the conditions are optimal for learned helplessness. A steady diet of seemingly inescapable negative experiences engenders a feeling of helplessness driving emotional surrender or shut-down. When our experience teaches us to believe that we are helpless to control the negative impacts in our life, we may initially seek to avoid them, but ultimately succumb to the hopelessness of being powerless to change our condition. Depression invariably follows. A broad observation of how this principle applies across so much of human experience helps us understand the root causes of human despair.
The concept of learned helplessness has been around for a long time described variously- “damned if you do, and, dammed if you don’t” or as a “no-win situation”, or what psychologists call a “double bind”. Essentially it means there is no win-win resolution available to us and the resolution will produce damaging consequences. At one time or another, most of us have found our self at the center of such a dilemma and are all too familiar with the anxiety it promotes and the depression that follows-on as the matter comes to be viewed as beyond a successful resolution.
How these experiences are managed and, to some extent, whether they are framed as hopeless or challenges, reveals something about how we are put together. For example, some seem to have an especially well-developed capacity for resilience. No matter how many times they are knocked down, they keep getting up. Or, perhaps, biochemically, the mix of neurotransmitters that bathe our brain in times of stress with serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and cortisol impacts the shape of our response to these incidents. And then there are still others who discover that a seemingly hopeless situation can be managed by an appeal to a higher purpose. Viktor Frankl, the father of Existential Psychology, focused his thinking on managing hopelessness as a prisoner in Auschwitz. As he witnessed the death of so many, he recalls how many of his fellow prisoners were consumed by a despair that left them with no reason to go on. He came to believe if he had something to live for, he would persevere. He decided he must persevere for the sake of his family. He survived but, tragically, he would learn, his family did not.
While not suggesting the pandemic has been on par with the horrors of the holocaust, the fundamental elements that create helplessness and despair seem to run through the debilitating episodes in human history and even in our mundane day to day experiences. But still, will simply understanding helplessness and despair, enable us to better negotiate a landscape in which we have been worn down by uncertainty.
I think so.
Even a basic understanding of learned helplessness suggests a person is caught in an unpleasant circumstance for which they see no resolution. But consider this. If I can find some measure of compassion for an insect that is helplessly trapped, surely, I can find that for another human being who may feel trapped. Granted, my butterfly made no disparaging comments about my lousy character. Regardless, the meaning we attribute to a person’s words and motives shapes our response. If I attribute fear of infection to the women who resented their perceived need to abandon the sidewalk each morning, will my response be more productive. I suspect it might go better if I resist my default inclination to interpret their remarks as meaning I am a disrespectful bully unwilling to give up control of the sidewalk; well, things might go better.
It all sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It has now been over a week since the sidewalk incident occurred and we haven’t seen the two women since. It’s pretty tempting to claim, “Problem solved!” And, in fact, the problem is solved unless we all feel there is no other route, and no other time for either party to take what they believe is an essential walk. But there are other times, other routes, and we’re even able to leave the walk for the street. Why frame an easily manageable problem as a double bind we are helpless to resolve? It’s puzzling how differences are increasingly being framed as resolvable by nothing less than acquiescence by one party or the other. We are creating a world of ideological double binds that leave more and more people feeling helpless and more anxious. Manageable issues are being framed as having only one solution which further aggravates anxiety. Those unwilling, or are too anxious, tired, or discouraged to engage in further efforts to seek meaningful resolutions to problems, succumb to the feeling of helplessness and the despair that follows.
The truth is we are far more powerful than we may believe. Much of the helplessness we feel is imposed by calcifying opinions that cannot simply be tolerated but dictate our behavior and define us as persons. This is getting worse, not better.
Resolutions need to be defined as finding a reasonable path forward, not the difference between survival and extinction. There is enough in this world which truly does place us in the classic double bind due to circumstances beyond our control. Do we remove grandfather from the respirator when it’s unlikely his condition will improve? Should police move in on a gunman who has hostages? There is plenty in day to day life fully capable of driving anxiety and promoting despair. Maybe we can find merit in holding our black and white ideologies and knee-jerk responses in check while we seek resolution among the vast range of grays. Maybe there is merit in taking time to chew on our responses before we express them.
There are real double binds and there are circumstances that we may have falsely learned to believe are double binds. There are circumstances where we truly are helpless and others where we have learned to believe we are helpless. We would all be so much better off to know the difference.