When was the last time you felt helpless? Have you ever been in a situation where you could not get out, no matter how hard you tried? I bet you have. Maybe you’re there now.
Author Greg McKeown tells the story about two psychologists who conducted an experiment using German shepherds. They divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press with their noses to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs was simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.
Afterward, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had “learned helplessness” (Essentialism, 36-37).
Learned helplessness. Ever been there, done that? We all have—in different ways and circumstances. A child struggles early on with math and tries to get better, but when his attempts fail, he eventually gives up, believing nothing he does will matter. A wife wants her marriage to improve, but after years of passive response from her husband, she files for divorce, fully convinced that nothing will change. You desire to break free from that hurt, habit or hang up, but after years of failed attempts, you, like the German shepherds in the above story, have a learned helplessness, and you wallow in your accepted pit of despondency.
Wallow no more. The first step forward is the awareness of your ability to choose. Recognize you have a God-given ability to activate an invincible power within you that exists separate and distinct from any other thing, person or force. William James once wrote, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” (idem.).
When you forget your ability to choose, you learn to be helpless. Drip by drip, you allow your power to be taken away until you end up becoming a function of other people’s choices. Don’t just recognize the power of choice, exercise it. Celebrate it. It will be a long journey, but it is a road worth traveling through the power of the Spirit and in community with others. Don’t wallow in your accepted pit of despondency.
“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15, NIV).