There was an interesting study done by a psychologist named Martin Seligman that explored the impact feeling helpless has on one’s sense of well-being. Seligman took three groups of dogs and ran them through a set of experiments. The first group was harnessed for a period of time and then released with nothing else done to them. A second group was harnessed like the first group, however this group received an electric shock at random times which they could only stop by pressing a lever. A third group was intentionally yoked to the second group so the shocks felt by the dogs in group two were also experienced by the dogs in group three. The one difference between the two groups was the dogs in group three didn’t have access to a lever to stop the shocks from coming. For all intensive purposes the dogs in group three had no control over their situation.
The second part of the experiment is probably the more interesting. Seligman changed the situation to give all the dogs a chance to avoid being shocked. He placed the dogs from group one, two, and three into a cage where one side was wired for shocks and the other was considered “safe”; a place where shocks could be avoided. The dogs simply had to jump over the partition to the safe side to avoid being shocked. The dogs from group one that were merely harnessed in the previous experiment immediately jumped over the partition to avoid being shocked. The dogs from group two who in the previous experiment were able to escape from being shocked through the use of a lever did the same as group one in this experiment. They had little trouble recognizing they had a way to avoid being shocked by simply jumping over the partition in their cage to the safe area. What about the dogs who were yoked to the second group in the first experiment having no control over whether or not the shocking stopped? Well, they did nothing. They simply laid there taking shock after shock, abuse after abuse, demonstrating they felt no sense of empowerment to overcome their situation.
The experiment above and others like it demonstrate something interesting not just about dogs, but about us as well. When we’re placed in a disempowering situation for a prolonged period of time we feel stuck. We feel like we can’t do anything about our situation so we just lay there and take whatever is thrown at us. This learned helplessness is something I frequently address with clients in therapy and in spiritual direction. We easily buy into the lie we’re victims of our situation and can do nothing about it. We’re like the dogs in Seligman’s third group who’ve simply found other people control whether or not we get shocked so we may as well just give up. That’s a powerful lie that some people perpetuate just to keep us from being empowered. Evil at its heart is a voice in our head constantly saying, “Just lay down and take it, you can’t change your situation anyway.”
We can always change our situation. We’re always in control of at least some factor in our environment, we just need to be creative enough to find it and use it for change. God created us to transcend our situation in ways no other creature can! To do so requires we ignore the evil lie keeping us from exercising that transcendent power. If there’s any spiritual strength you need to be convinced of it’s that you are by the grace of God a person who doesn’t need to remain stuck in your current situation and can choose to do something to move forward and become the person you were intended to be. You deserve to know love and to have the opportunity to share love with others. If you’ve been in an environment too long telling you otherwise, change the environment. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to see ourselves as God does instead of the way sin shapes our self-perception. No matter how good we have it now we were created to be so much more. Unfortunately many of us buy into the spiritual lie that we have to be content with where we are, take abuse from others, and remain stuck in our current situation. Grace is God’s answer to this skewed picture of life. Grace says no matter how stuck you feel there’s a way out. Grace says no matter how unloved you’ve been made to feel, there’s an ocean of love to receive. Grace says no matter how marred and ugly you feel, there’s another who sees you for the beautiful person you are. Don’t allow the sin in the world to leave you laying in that cage taking the shocks of evil over and over again. Know that there is Grace in this life to encourage you to leap over that barrier and find the peace each of us deserves. Love is powerful, just believe you’re worth it and allow that power to help you transcend whatever situation you find yourself in.