There are few things more terrifying than paralysis. I shudder when I hear of someone in an accident who is now paralysed. Imagining myself lying in a bed unable to move is frightening. In this hurting world there are many people paralysed. I’m not just talking about patients sitting in wheelchairs; I’m talking about people who, though walking, are internally paralysed. Stuck is another word we use to describe this condition. This can happen in the middle years of life.
Things happen in the second half of life that you never planned for: a bad report from the doctor; being let go from your job; a financial downturn; an accident; deep exhaustion caused by problems that just won’t go away, no matter how many times you tackle them. You run out of options, run out of energy and can find yourself bewildered. Stopped. Stuck. Not knowing what to do next. Not being able to move means you are paralysed.
Learned helplessness is a term that describes this. It occurs when things beyond your control stop you, and no matter what you do, you cannot overcome it. And when you have tried over and over again, you can become psychologically helpless. You have ‘learned’ it because of repeated efforts that failed. The danger here is that while you may be ‘stuck’ in one area of your life, the learned helplessness spreads into other areas. You become so focused on the one problem you cannot fix that you are frozen in other areas where you could be operating. You have learned to be helpless.
Discovering this insight into learned helplessness was very helpful for me. Wrestling with several stubborn problems was draining me of energy. Having less mental energy meant things took longer to do; which in turn meant I was getting behind in other areas. I felt a temptation coming on to just sit there transfixed by anxiety around the stubborn problems.
Here’s a story that helped me. My wife and I watched a movie called “Touching the Void.” It is one of the most gripping stories of mountain climbing we have ever seen, the true story of Simon Yates shattering his leg in a climbing accident, and falling into an ice crevasse. Stuck on an ice ledge in pitch darkness, he had every reason to give up and die. Simon narrates what was going on in his head … “You can’t just sit there; you have to do something, even if it is wrong.” The only thing he could do was to lower himself into the crevasse even further – completely counter-intuitive The movie documents his incredible journey off the mountain. Well worth watching.
So here’s the lesson…
When you feel stymied in one area, beware of allowing your helplessness there to spread to other areas of your life. Just because you have no control over a problem does not mean you cannot do something, somewhere. “You can’t just sit there!”
OK, so you have a stubborn problem somewhere. What’s one thing you can do anyway?
Next blog …
This midlife musing is about pressing on, refusing to let problems paralyse you. The next blog is about hope.