346. Learned Helplessness

We all know someone who revels in victimhood, who burrows into their miseries like a tick on an old mangy dog, and won’t let go, sucking their toxic sustenance from the sick host. If you try to create some daylight between the host and the parasitic sucker, the career victim says, “Yes but my childhood, my schooling, my family, my lousy birthdate, my skin, my height, my hemorrhoids, etc.” It’s hard to spend time with these folks because after a while you realize that they are sucking whatever optimism you came with right out of you. They deflate the bouncy beach ball of joy into a flat inner tube of despair. The longer you are around them, the more your mind wanders toward making nooses out of inner tubes. Being compassionate, however, you decide to make two. You would not want to inflict this pesty pessimist on any other human being after you hang only yourself. Any optimism on your part is met by the Elite Red Guard of Defeatism and utterly destroyed. After all is said and done, Dark likes it dark.

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. (Wikipedia, support them, blog dogs! I do.) No successful outcomes can be imagined in the dark land of stinking thinking.

A buddy of mine from way back in the day was a functional depressive. He expected to be crapped on in life and just rolled with and in it, never pushing back. His wife dominated him totally. His kids played him like a fiddle. His dog peed on his refrigerator grille just because he knew no consequences were coming. I remember once talking with him about seeking treatment for his depression. He explained,

“Oh, I’ve thought about it, sure. But, see, as bad as my life is, I figure it would take several years of therapy and medication to get better, and by then I’ll be in my early sixties. I don’t expect to live past 70, so I’ll just about be dead by the time I figure out my miserable life. So why bother? I keep a calendar in the basement. Every night I write ‘Life sucks’ in that square, cuz every day life sucks. Month after month after month, life sucks. Then you die. The only question is this: how many more ‘Life Sucks’ boxes between here and ‘Then You Die’?”

I had to agree with him. The matrix he had constructed to insulate himself in misery was a concretized reinforced bunker of resistance. He had grown comfortable in his cell of despair, carpeted it and had cable installed. Why move now? Just have burned pizza delivered to Apartment B, 333 Hell Avenue, Tartarus, until you owned the deed.

I know of an experiment where fatigued swimming rats were rescued just as they were about to drown. When placed in the same cruel water tank again, these rats swam longer than control rats, suggesting “learned optimism”, the reverse of learned helplessness. Apparently, some lab rats want to live more than others.And if a rat catches a break, it will try harder next time.

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarized as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”. (Wikipedia, again.) That’s a long, marshmallow crème sort of prescription. Steve with a V  from Coffee Nation would summarize it succinctly into this:  “Growaset!” I would set up business somewhere between Steve and Martin Seligman.

Falling in love with your excuses is just as weird as dressing up rats and squirrels that will one day chew through your electric wires or your face.  “Aren’t they cute? tick, tick, tick. Look at them in their little Santa suits. Oh, they’re climbing up the Christmas tree. No! Don’t chew the lights!!! Zap. Doggonit!! I paid good money for those Santa suits.” See? I am a chronic loser. I can’t even control pet squirrels.

There is an oddly positive takeaway from chronic depressives, however, that is  similar to being released from a cramped sauna where you have been smashed up with eight sweating sumo wrestlers for an hour. When you hit that clean, cool, dry air outside the cabin, man it feels better! You feel free and light and dry and safe and less awkwardly naked. Yeah, you can’t really reason with over weighted emotions. Like the sumo wrestlers in the sauna, they will just crush you. So here’s a note to self: never sauna with eight sumo wrestlers at one time, or with one depressive.

Oh, the self anointed Realists will tell you that your optimism is silly, naïve, and irresponsible. Better to be prepared for the worst than surprised by it. But the sun never shines on their side of the street. It’s always dark in that mindset because that is the original premise. At best they swim with half inflated life preservers… you know, cuz reality is hard and you have to swim or sink on your own efforts. So why did God give us positive emotions if  we aren’t supposed to expect good things in life or celebrate when something like victory occurs? Again, my depressed buddy’s philosophy– “I think God will punish me if I have a good day. He’ll give me a bad one to keep the score even. So I just hope for mediocre.”

And not surprisingly he hits the target every time.

 

 

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340. NYC

This past weekend was spent in Manhattan, New York, New York. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”, so the song goes. [“Unfortunately, if you can’t make there, you just go home and mope about what a sucking loser you are.” That line was mysteriously cut from the original version of New York, New York. Apparently it lacked musicality.] Our pilgrimage this year was the least stressful trip to, through, and out of Manhattan that we have ever experienced. We being my lovely wife, my operatic daughter, and I. Last Christmas was the last time we visited and whatta, whatta, whatta nightmare it wa- wa- wa- was!! The traffic was inhuman. Cruel even.  We spent two hours getting through the Holland Tunnel and then putzing through lower Manhattan over to Brooklyn, where we returned my eldest daughter to her micro apartment thimble-sized sparrow nest. (I am feeling re-traumatized now just typing about the memory. “I’ll have a Xanax martini, bartender. Make it fizz.”)  I got stuck in the crosswalk just a block away from the tunnel entrance on the Jersey side. A murderously angry driver in a Lincoln town car blew his horn and accelerated like a rabid bull toward my side of the car as we sat helplessly in the intersection, expecting to be gored on the doorstep of the Big Apple. Dude locked up his brakes and stopped inches from my door, like it was a mob hit, think of Sonny at the toll booth in The Godfather .  We all screamed in anticipation of the impact that did not come to my new car, but the horns just kept blaring at me, condemning my blatant tourist fox paws, that’s French for a social blunder.  The stress kept mounting until my skull cracked open and a tree grew up from the pavement of my corpus callosum as we entered Brooklyn. What kind of tree, you ask?  A coconut naturally. I had to tilt my head forward to avoid catching the fronds on the Williamsburg Bridge supports.

Image result for coconut tree growing out of someone's head pictureThat’s what it felt like anyway, a massive fuzzy spider web of stress that spread out from my brain stem across every millimeter of my crawling skin and then crystallized into veins of brittle glass. Simply breathing required focus due to the overwhelming video game exploding on the other side of my windshield, sucking my eyeballs out of their fragile sockets– trucks, taxis, buses, scooters, skate boarders, bicyclists going with and against traffic, and endless pedestrians on cell phones talking to their lawyers about potential traffic torts. [I need a breath here. Whew!! “Bartender, another zantini.”] All this stimulation palpitated at the bottom of incredibly interesting canyons of amazing architecture and iconic buildings, bridges, and statues everywhere. Wha- wha- wha- what the heck!!! You don’t realize that you have stopped blinking due to your very active fear of death. Naturally your eyes dry out and the sooty air begins to sand down your corneas. And yet, on this razor’s edge of existence you feel fully alive and a part of this liquid human magic act where thousands ebb and flow by one another crimelessly. It should never work, this human bee hive, but some primeval cooperative gene turns on and millions of humans glide by each other as if choreographed by a master dance genius.

Of course it helps if you come in to Midtown via the Lincoln Tunnel. No muss, no fuss, just 14 bucks. And then stay near the theatre district, which we did this time. Thankfully, our street, 37th, was actually closed due to some construction project at the end of our block. We parked, yes PARKED, across the street in a garage for less than $50 a day. Our tiny suite was quiet, QUIET. The only word we could not use, in fact, can never ever be used in NYC, was CHEAP. New York is a huge money meter monster that has to be fed richly every hour or it will grind you up and spit you out onto the grimy sidewalks where those same millions of minions will trundle by crimelessly self absorbed.

Where do they toilet and bathe, the homeless?  Forget laundry. They are like the pigeons, living on the crumbs and debris of the well heeled Gothamites. God knows when a sparrow falls. I guess He knows when all these human pigeons scuttle about, living like modern lepers. I ask myself ‘Why is it that some folks sell junk on the streets and others beg? They spend just as much time on the same street.’ The one standing offers you a hat, an umbrella, a t-shirt, tickets to a comedy club, or a photo of John Lennon hugging the Naked Cowboy when they were both toddlers. The slouching other asks for your pity and jiggles a cup with coins. They are both selling junk, but the one still standing does not believe he is the junk being sold.  Meanwhile I’m going to a two hour show and put my butt in a $75 seat. I’m eating dinner with $18 bottled water to wash it down. And I wonder how these guys even got into Manhattan at $14 a pop. Happily there is no charge to leave. But why does their image burn deeper and last longer than the sentimental musical I paid to see? I guess their performances are more meaningful in the grand scheme of things. Unforgettable even.

No matter the cost, I think of my New York trips as investments, not as frivolous and extravagant waste. It’s like Dorothy going to Oz. Visiting Gotham makes living in Kansas or Central PA more bearable.

Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leavin’ today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York
I want to wake up, in a city that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap
These little town blues
Are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it
In old New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York

 

283. Deal me out, Bro’

Jerry Garcia sang it clearly…

“Deal”

Since it cost a lot to win
and even more to lose
You and me bound to spend some time
wondring what to choose
Goes to show you don’t ever know
Watch each card you play
and play it slow
Wait until your deal come round
Don’t you let that deal go down
I been gambling here abouts
for ten good solid years
If I told you all that went down
it would burn off both your ears
It goes to show you don’t ever know
Watch each card you play
and play it slow
Wait until your deal come round
Don’t you let that deal go down
Since you poured the wine for me
and tightend up my shoes
I hate to leave you sittin there
composin lonesome blues
It goes to show you don’t ever know
Watch each card you play
and play it slow
Wait until your deal come round
Don’t you let that deal go down
Don’t you let that deal go down, no
Don’t you let your deal go down
Image result for human poker player pictures
Simple formula, dontcha think? Cards are the metaphor for life. We all play each day, week, month, year, hoping to win. But win what?  We all have different goals. Real estate deals, job interviews, car deals, drug deals, dating deals… what’s your deal, man? Are you in all the way or just posting up on the ante? How many hands will you invest in?
I’m only familiar with poker hands, whether five card stud or draw poker or seven card stud. Folding is an option all along the way, if you must fold to protect your assets.  No shame there. If you can figure out odds, then you know when you have a useless hand. On the other hand this dearth of good cards could call forth your acting, i.e., bluffing skills. Though you have a nine high nothing, you may choose to play it tough, stare down your competitors, hypnotize them with bluffery. What a victory that would be in a hand of poker or a real life deal.
I’m imagining a called bluff scenario that must be fairly common in the online dating world. If your profile picture is from ten years ago and fifty pounds lighter than the present day, you know you’ll  have to show your cards at some point, most likely at hello. I know even less about dating than poker, but I believe they are both very risky activities, sometimes ending in mayhem or murder when things go wrong.
After some time spent flirtatiously suggesting chemistry and connection on line, Sally and Harry decide to meet in person for the first time at a local dimly lit Irish pub.
Image result for awkward first date in a bar pictures
Harry enters the bar, smiling stiffly and blathers unedited, “You must be Sally, right? You look fabulous, just like your profile picture. Harry, (reaching out his hand) Mc Featers, like feet, or defeat, you know, like we are walking on de shoes, ha ha.” (Nervous as a nun at a strip club.)
Inwardly both are groaning at the awkward dissimilarity to their online repartee, as if Cyrano De Bergerac had been outed as clumsy, inarticulate and gender conflicted. Meanwhile Sally has positioned herself with her best side showing from the corner of the booth with the television above and behind her left shoulder, knowing all men will tend to zone into the screen and not pay such close attention to her dyed hair and half a second chin. Of course, she is wearing an all black outfit over her spanx for the sake of illusion. Bluffing goes both ways.
Reaching up to shake, “Sally, uh,  Myerson.  Harry, glad to meet you.”
“Yes, really great. Wow. It’s amazing to see you in person. There’s just so much more to a person in person, don’t you think?”
Sally starts to cringe and blush at his ghastly speech. ‘Could he possibly be this stupid?’  “Yes, let’s order a drink, why don’t we?” she hurriedly suggests to get something in his dry, nervous mouth besides pigeon dropping comments.
“You betcha. Waitress a double vodka tonic for me and, Cindy, I mean Sally, what would you like?”
‘I’d like to slip into a coma right now, but I can’t.’ “Uh, do you know how to make Sex on the Beach?”
Harry, “Whoa, no but I can learn, Sandy, I mean, Sally, ha ha!!”
Waitress, “Sure, Honey.” Then with a knowing glance and a half pitiful wink she whispers, “Good luck with him” as she takes the drink menus away.

“So, Harry, how would you like tonight to go, you know, what goals do you have for our evening?” she probes a bit drily.
“Oh Sally I don’t set goals; I score them, if you know what I’m sayin’. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, first I want to know if we should order dinner or not.”
“Whoa, baby girl. Settle your jumpy heart. We have the whole night. We can have dinner, dance a little, cuddle up, and then get naked.”
“Harry, yeah, to tell you the truth I’m about to leave right now. The only naked you’re getting from me tonight is the naked truth. Understand?”
“Um, Um, whoa. Here are our drinks. Just a sec.” Waitress smirks and leaves the online hopefuls to their self-inflicted condemnation.
“Yeah, I think we got some wires crossed. I thought you were, you know, pushing the envelope with your drink choice. I’m sorry if I got too frisky too fast for you.”
Sally chugs the entire drink and belches. “Whew. Excuse me. This damn diet is killing me. I only eat celery sticks on Saturdays.”
“No, no problem, Sal. You want another one?”
“Yeah, what the hell?”
Waitress, “You’re staying?”
Sally, “For one more drink.”
Waitress, “Don’t you want to let that first one settle, Honey?”
“Who’s settling?  I’m fifty three years old, Honey. All the good ones are long gone.”
Waitress, “I’m sorry, none of my business. Just thinking of that old song, ‘don’t let your deal go down’, ya know?”
Sally, “It’s a little late for discretion, Sugar. My desperation clock struck midnite. I’m in overtime, ya know? Just deal me out, Bro.”

193. even the shadow of the leper

Sunday’s message at church was from Mark 1:40, where Jesus healed a leper. I’ve never met a leper or seen anyone with horrible skin diseases, but I can imagine the disfiguration that comes from leprosy. I recall the movie Ben Hur and the valley where the lepers lived as their skin fell off. But you can know things your whole life and not really know them at the core. How many times have I heard a Scripture and thought to myself, “Oh, sure, the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4. Sure, I know that one”… only to have a gifted pastor break open my calcified mind and find a fresh spring flowing there? How could that Samaritan woman have five divorces and not be adulterous, cuz adultery was punishable by public stoning, right, and she’s still breathing? Hmmm. Maybe something else is going on…. It happened again today. For some reason the message was a fork in my eye and a tattoo needle beating on my brain like a hummingbird’s wing.

Our Pastor Interimus is Don Baker. He focused on human touch, and how critical it is for human well being to be touched by other humans. He mentioned how kids love to touch things, even break things, and how we guard valuables against errant touch. But in the Gospel of Mark a leper approaches Jesus, a rabbi. It is the most unclean member of that society, covered in open leprous sores, approaching the cleanest, God himself in human skin. According to the laws and customs of that time, “even the shadow of the leper” could make one ceremonially unclean. That’s some intense mojo attributed to leprosy. As far as I can Google search, leprosy is communicated via sneezes and armadillos not through touch. I know you must think I am pulling your on-line leg, but check my facts on this one. I have earned your incredulity, I know, but this is true; trust me. No? Then at least trust Wikipedia.

Anyway, since we don’t have lepers in our little town, we had to generalize to the various outcasts who don’t touch us because we avoid touching them– the mentally ill, the poor, the foreign, the imprisoned, GLBT. These are the very folks God told us to provide for, along with widows and orphans.  They are our untouchables, our pariahs. And how are we doing with this gift of  human touch?  Not well, I’m afraid to report. I don’t cringe when a mentally ill person’s shadow falls on me. I’m not that superstitious…but that is a very vague form of touch. For it to occur implies there is a geographic closeness between us. On the other hand, I don’t approach these folks openly and lovingly. We don’t touch one another. I think it’s awkward or unnecessary. I speculate, “Someone in church or government will comfort them. I contribute to those institutions, so I’m indirectly good. I have indirectly fulfilled my duty… like paying someone to take my place in war.” The thing is that Jesus did not merely tolerate the leper; He directly embraced the man, and His touch healed the leper. He did not send the leper to the Salvation Army or the United Way or County Welfare.

Later in Sunday School we expanded the analysis of Mark’s passage. As we read deeper, we saw a trade going on, very similar to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus trades places with the leper who came in from beyond the camp or city for healing. Because the healed leper could not restrain from telling others of his miraculous healing, Jesus was then overwhelmed by healing seekers and had to leave the city limits. In a short time frame Jesus became an outcast, and a threat to the order of Jerusalem and Jewish life. He had this way of turning things and people’s minds upside down. If  you’ve ever baked a pineapple upside down cake, then you’ve had the odd experience of flipping a perfectly placid cake surface over onto a wildly juicy, fruity layer that drips invitingly. Jesus did this without a cake or pineapple. He did the same thing to the woman at the well, and she ran off to tell everyone what happened to her:  Jesus had reset her, right side up.

It is an odd thing that when we are hurting, we isolate ourselves from others. We lay low and lick our wounds. Survival is all that concerns us then, and in our isolation we validate our own pariah-ness. Then, when relief or healing comes, we can’t restrain ourselves; we have to shout out our victory. How to bridge the gap between hiding from pain and embracing the cure? Somehow that leper knew who Jesus was and found Him. The leper was proactive, but the woman at the well did not know about Jesus. They merely met at Jacob’s well at noon. She was reactive and defensive until Jesus broke through her resistance by telling her of her five husbands. This outcast woman ran into her village to tell others about Jesus being the Messiah, His words being living water.  So whether you seek Jesus or He seeks you, the outcome can be the same if you will abandon your isolation.

Have you ever been the leper?  The outcast? The hated one? It’s not fun being the only gay guy on the football team, the only Black person in the county, the only Jew in Tehran, the only Muslim in Brooklyn, the only white guy in Camden, the only lesbian at the beauty pageant, the only woman in the submarine, etc. How about the only sane one on the psych ward, the only native in a sea of migrants, the only migrant in a sea of natives, or the only insane one on a sane ward? Your “only-ness” is indicative of your isolation and helplessness. Everyone needs help; everyone needs a savior.  How crazy is it that someone who is all would trade places with you in your empty nothingness? And yet that is what Jesus does for addicts, adulterers, sex offenders, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, used car salesmen, bankers, teachers, pilots, preachers, plumbers, bar owners, managers, and you. His crazy love is no crazier than running away from a leper’s shadow.