Monday, August 17, 2009

Wasted Days

Every once in a while a day begins full of promise and ends as empty as a drum. Proust, Chateaubriand, Castenada and Soljenitsin all mention such times in their writings--days when expectations run high and realities do not, when the past and the present do not make a seamless union. By noon there comes a sense of useless struggle against things not well defined, a knowledge that somehow, whatever may occur, these will not be hours blessed by the joys of accomplishment; there will be little relief or reprieve from what may be ailing. Life, and what makes it good, has dismissed us.

Days like that--wasted days--run longer than 24 hours. They occupy the disregarded nooks and crannies of our being and make us aware that often, our lives are not our own--they belong to our husbands and wives, lovers present and past, children, bosses, employees, whoever that day wields the most power over us. They make us feel the control we normally exercise over our own lives is at best minimal, haphazard and subject to every conceivable vagary.

Note that this isn't what is referred to in 12-step programs as "powerless over people, places and things." It's different; it's helplessness, not powerlessness, and where one can feel a certain relief at being unable to influence most events, appearing unable to influence any event is something altogether different.

Which brings up to the Learned Helplessness Theory, developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. Building upon his research with humans and animals, LHT came to be defined as "the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or animal perceives no control over repeated bad events," or as "the perception, based on past experiences, that one has no control over one’s reinforcements."

Perhaps the best definition is, "Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which individuals gradually, usually as a result of repeated failure or control by others, become less willing to attempt tasks." It may occur in everyday situations where continued failure inhibits an individual from experiencing faith in the future. Apathy and submission prevail if and when life circumstances cause the individual to experience life choices as irrelevant.

It's my belief that all of us, regardless of station in life, success or ambition, experience moments and days that reinforce our feelings of helplessness, and a percentage turn to addiction for relief. Those of us who have done just that, and later discovered that the addiction itself had become the focus of our helplessness, are in a special quandary. We turn to other forms of relief--some write, some sing, some dance, some medicate--because, in the words of Blaise Pascal, "Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in... without passion, without occupation, without diversion, without efforts. Then he feels his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness."

Pascal was a mathematician and physicist in the 1600s; he invented the world's first calculator, the pascaline, and throughout his life was plagued by ill health. He struggled with LHT long before it was defined, and of course, he was French.

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