Learned helplessness, a term first coined by Martin Seligman, refers to a pervasive sense of powerlessness that comes from repeated failures. The concept is often used as one explanation for depression, but it’s a far richer concept than that in my estimation. Back in my graduate school days, I saw a very graphic depiction of learned helplessness played out with circus elephants. As babies, the elephants were restrained by heavy chains attached to a stake hammered into the ground. No matter how they might try, the elephant simply could not escape those chains, and many injured themselves trying. Eventually, they gave up entirely….even into adulthood, when they could easily snap those chains or pull the stake out of the ground with one simply pull. They stopped trying to escape, and I would argue they stopped interacting with a world in which the possibility of escape even existed. Instead, they lived a false reality in which those chains had the same power they had early on.
This is, perhaps, an overly long lead-in to a simple idea: the chains of poverty, trauma, and illness are no less powerful than the steel chains I saw in that grad school video. Some months ago on the floor of our own state legislature, I heard something horrifying. An elected official actually referred to citizens on public assistance as “parasites.” The ensuing discussion made it clear that others on the floor shared that view, at least to some degree. The point that was being made was that some significant number of poor people were choosing to be poor as a means of taking advantage of system and of the hardworking people of Missouri. I would be the first to acknowledge that we have systems in deep need of transformation and reform. However, in more than 25 years of working with the poor, I haven’t seen conniving layabouts looking for handouts. In my experience, people don’t choose to be poor, or helpless, or abused, or addicted, or mentally ill, and for those who are, the chains are heavy indeed. I’ve met plenty of poor people who work harder than any wealthy person I’ve ever met. More than that, however, I’ve met many poor people who have lost the capacity to dream of a better life. They’ve been taught, either by the cruelty of life’s circumstances or by unbalanced systems of education and justice that it doesn’t do any good to fight anymore. Instead, they consume their days with surviving. They’ve learned to be helpless, and to the unreflective eye, maybe that looks like choice, or manipulation, or satisfaction. Through the eyes of the elephant, however, that chain is unbreakable, and through the eyes of far too many marginalized people…the world is not a place where there is any hope of a truly better life…and so they stop fighting, and they stop dreaming. That is unacceptable.
Here at Good Shepherd we try in our own small way to assist those we serve in breaking the chains that bind them. We’re not always successful, but imagine if we all made it our mission to help those in need to dream of a better life? What if we all made it our personal mission to instill hope in the hopeless or to help the powerless find their strength? Imagine what we could do together!