Direct Answers – Learned Hopelessness


Remi, last week you told us your husband left you, after only a year of marriage, because you sacrificed your marriage to an alcoholic father and brothers. It was Sunday night, and you wondered if you should return to your addicted family, who live six hours away. Our short answer was no. This is the longer answer we promised you.

You come from people who won’t face the central issue of their own lives. That’s the life you’re contemplating returning to. So the choice is simple. Do you want the life you almost had with your husband? Or do you want the life you come from?

Psychologist Marty Seligman did a famous, and rather cruel, experiment with dogs. He shocked them. In part of Seligman’s experiment, some dogs were given a means of escape while others were not. Later, when all the dogs were able to escape, the ones previously trapped didn’t even try.

Seligman called their condition learned helplessness, but that name is a misnomer. The dogs that didn’t try to escape didn’t learn to be helpless. They learned to give up hope, even though hope is what drives life itself, in dogs as well as people.

Giving up hope came first, and helplessness followed. Third came aftereffects. In human beings these aftereffects include wasteful behavior and sometimes addiction, as in your family.

Steven Pressfield said, “All addictions share, among others, two primary qualities. One, they embody repetition without progress. Two, they produce incapacity as a payoff.” That is the life you are thinking about returning to.

But you have a choice. You can live in the world that created the sorrows in your life. or you can escape. The first choice offers uncomfortable comfort. It is familiar, and there is a certain equilibrium in dysfunction. It will seem normal to you, though it is far from normal.

The second path will be much harder for you, especially in the beginning. Change is tough, but in the long run, this hard choice almost always turns out to be the easier path.

In the beginning of the Dickens novel of the same name, David Copperfield says, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

In a similar way, you have a chance to be the hero of your own life. It’s challenging, but the choice is clear. Do you want to live in the real world you struggled to live in with your husband, or the distorted world created by your drunken father?

Many people are inspired by Joseph Campbell’s account of the hero’s journey. That journey is the theme of all great literature, and it is also the story of each human life. It is the story of someone, a hero, leaving their known world to enter an unknown world where they will be tested and challenged. In the course of the journey the hero is transformed.

You call yourself a loser, but you are not. You were an abused child born into a world of incapacity and repetition without progress. Now, you are called to be the hero of your own life.

Your father and brothers are addicted to failure. It is their drug of choice, but you don’t have to imbibe. No one will gain if you forfeit your life as they have. Don’t return. Turn this heartbreak into the means of escape. Break contact with your family so severely that they will have no means to draw you back in.

The first step in knowing which way to go is always knowing which way not to go. Begin your journey into the unknown, the place where you will discover a new way of living.

You are not called to aid in the mistakes of others. You are called to be the hero of your own life.

~ Wayne & Tamara

Direct Answers for the week of February 3, 2020

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