31 October 2009

Learned Helplessness

In 1967, Martin Seligman conducted one of the most groundbreaking studies in the history of psychology. He described a phenomenon called learned helplessness, whereby dogs repeatedly exposed to shock with no hope for escape eventually learned to just lay down and whine when shocked, even when escape became possible. Learned helplessness was foundational to modern psychology's understanding of depression.

I had not thought of this term in a long time, but a confluence of factors brought it back to mind. At the end of his excellent book A Praying Life, Paul Miller wrote, "Learned helplessness lurks just underneath the surface of [my] prayer time. I simply can't do life on my own. Without God's intervention, I am completely helpless. I need Jesus" (p. 260). I have experienced learned helplessness very profoundly during the month of October. I was co-directing the capital campaign at church. I was helpless. We were awaiting Tessa's court date, not sure of what the outcome might be. I was helpless. Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was helpless. Amelia, the daughter of some of our dearest friends, lies in the hospital in a grave neurological state. I am helpless.

Helpless, Helpless, Helpless

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I can do apart from God. He is my ever constant help in trouble. These recent situations have all helped me to learn that I am indeed helpless, but I am not hopeless. I serve a powerful God who loves me. Though I may not understand why or how, He will work all things out to His glory. May I never forget that in Him, there is hope.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

-The 121st Psalm

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