Learned Helplessness

In 1969, renowned professor of clinical psychology and the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Martin Seligman, coined the term “learned helplessness”. The phrase out of a series of experiments (which I realize are quite horrible and inhumane). He had three groups of dogs which were all put in harnesses where they could not move. The dogs in group one were placed in the harness and then released. The dogs in group two were in the harness and given an electrical shock, but there was a lever they could push and the shock would stop. The dogs in group three were in harnesses and given an electrical shock, they also had a lever in front of them but the lever did not stop the electric shock.

What Seligman first discovered was that dogs from groups 1 and 2 recovered quickly from their ordeals when they returned back to their pens with the other dogs and seemed vibrant and healthy. The dogs from group 3 learned quickly that the shock was inescapable and they had no control over it. When returned to their regular pens with the other dogs, these dogs from group 3, became helpless and manifested symptoms of chronic depression.  (No surprise there!)

But there was more. The first stage of experiments I described took place over a period of time to reinforce the outcome. Later that year, Seligman’s second stage of the experiment put all three groups of dogs in a type of shuttle box, a box with a low divider where the dogs could move from one side to the other if needed. Dogs from group 1 and 2 would quickly a shock by jumping over the low center divider to the other side. The dogs from group 3 were also shocked and what Seligman saw reinforced his suspicion. The dogs from group 3, who had previously “learned” that nothing they did would affect the shocks, simply laid down and whined when shocked. They didn’t try to escape at all. Seligman said the dogs in group 3 had developed “learned helplessness”.

Toward the end of the first year of experiments, Seligman and his team tried to coax the dogs from group3 across the shuttle box to avoid the shock. They used treats, incentives, coaxing, allowed them to watch the other dogs and other methods. The dogs had been so conditioned by learned helplessness that nothing they would do would help the dogs move away from the shock…except for one thing.  Seligman found that only when they went in, physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs to model for them how to move across the shuttle box at least 2 to 3 times would the dogs actually “learn” new behavior and escape the shock.  Threats, rewards, and even watching the other dogs escape did not change their thinking. Only when the scientists reached down, picked them up, and moved their legs did the learn they could change the outcome.

Seligman argued that learned helplessness is wired into our biology. Many of us have been here.  Through significant suffering, grief, or even just getting stuck in the mundane routine of life, we feel we cannot control the outcome.  .  We just take it – whatever life sends us.  We never try to escape.  We never try to combat the powers.  There is nothing we can do…or so we think.  We see others rise above, but that is not enough to call us to rise up.  No, we just resign ourselves to suffering.

Professional poker champion Phil Gordon in his “Little Green Book on Poker”, says at the end, “I’ve disovered there are sick gamblers. We’re talking people who expect to lose. They are actually soothed by losing because it’s the only way they can confirm just how unlucky, undeserving, and cursed they are. I may try to help a sick gambler, but not while I’m playing. They expect to get beaten…while I may feel sorry for them, it is my duty to fulfill their expectations.”

Most of us think we are smarter than a dog and that we would never allow that to happen to us.  I’ve found in my life I’m not. I spend years in a state of learned helplessness after my parents divorce.  I just accepted what was.  I had no control over it.

So, how do we rise above the learned helplessness of life?  Not through talk, Paul says, but power…actions…and God does this through the community of faith. God’s hands are the hands of those who pick us up and move our legs across the walls that stand in our way.

The desert fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries believed there were three ways we gained the mind of Christ and learned to live in unity and love.
1. Prayer and Introspection
2. Participate in the Sacraments
3. Seek out a Spiritual Guide (Abba or Amma) who has the mind of Christ and can teach you.  While all three are vital, the third leg is crucial to overcoming learned helplessness.

In 1997, I was an associate at St. Luke in Columbus, a 3500 member church. I was not happy and thought, I know God called me to ministry, but I’m not enjoying this. I applied to be a campus minister, thinking…that at least looks fun. Now before I make any big decision in life, I seek out my mentors. I had prayed and sought God, but one of my mentors, Mike McAfee, gave sage wisdom, “John, what has God called you to do?” I replied, he called me to ministry, to preach, to lead people to Christ and discipleship. Are you doing that, he asked? Well, sure, I said. He wisely said something I didn’t want to hear. John, an associate is great, but don’t deceive yourself into thinking you are doing the kind of ministry God has called you to. Here is my advice, leave there, get your own church and see what God does and says. If you still want out, I will support you. I moved that next year to my first appointment as sole pastor and I haven’t had a second thought ONE time since.

Where do you need to submit yourself and allow another to come alongside of you?  Who can lift you up, move your legs and teach you to move out of the limitations of the learned helplessness you are stuck in?

Some of us may be bound up in the mundane, but you can rise above it. You can’t do it alone. You need someone to come alongside of you. The holy spirit does this through others around us as they lead us out of learned helplessness into putting on the mind of Christ.

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