Coping with Repeated Tragedy

The events of the last few months, beginning with Hurricane Harvey and culminating with the mass shooting in Las Vegas, have left me speechless and paralyzed. For over a month, I have struggled with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in a world that has felt hostile as a result of both natural and human destruction. In situations where I am typically confident, persistent, and assertive, I have felt ineffective and often given up before even getting started. Only yesterday, while having a conversation with someone else who is struggling from general malaise related to a sense of being unable to control the negative climate in which Americans are currently living, did I realize that I had succumbed to learned helplessness and that I did, in fact, know the way out.

This personal journey led me to realize that there are likely many of you who are experiencing similar feelings. In fact, my immediate peer group, which is typically full of vocal promoters of social justice, has been largely silent about the events in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas. While many of my peers, and myself, published and promoted awareness of the needs of Hurricane Harvey’s victims, the silence grew larger and larger with each subsequent disaster: Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and now the man-made disaster in Las Vegas. Many of us likely are victims of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological concept first identified by Martin Seligman in 1967. In Seligman’s early experiments, dogs were divided into groups. All of the dogs were given electric shocks, but only one group of them had the ability to press a lever and end the shocks. Every dog then was moved into a different box in which they all had the ability to escape being shocked by jumping over a small barrier. Interestingly, the dogs who had previously been able to control being shocked learned to jump over the barrier quickly. In contrast, the dogs who had not been able to control the shocks in the past simply laid down and whined while being shocked. They had learned that they had no ability to end their suffering, so they stopped trying to do so. Like Seligman’s dogs, the series of events in the last few months has many of us laying down and “taking it” from the world around us. We fought hard at some point (whether it be against destruction from hurricanes earlier this year or against mass shootings for the last 30+ years), but we have learned that no matter what we do, nothing will change, and so we sit in our boxes whimpering when we are shocked. This is a quick path to depression.

So, what are we to do? First, let me start by saying that the reasoning abilities of humans is a great place to start. We can convince ourselves that doing something is better than doing nothing or that we have to continue to try to change the world no matter how long it takes. Second, let me say that behaviors can be unlearned. We have the ability to teach ourselves that we can, in fact, affect change as long as we start small, set attainable goals, and reach them. No, no one person reading this blog has the ability to make sure another person doesn’t open fire on a group of innocent civilians. However, each of us has a role to play in encouraging, fighting for, and ultimately causing change. During my conversation yesterday, the person with whom I was speaking pointed out that it took decades for equal voting rights legislation to be passed in the United States. I would argue that voting rights are still not exactly equal, but that is beside the point. Either way, it is true, monumental change took monumental effort and courage. However, change would never have occurred at all if no single person had fought for it. That is the important point here, no change can occur if no one stands up for it. So even though it may feel like whatever you have to contribute is insignificant, that is simply not the case. If you contribute your capabilities to a cause, the momentum of that cause grows by that amount, no matter how small.

With that I encourage you to begin fighting for whatever it is that you believe in with whatever effort you have. Only then can you facilitate change. Fortunately, you will also be fighting for your own mental health at the same time.