Finding strength in stubbed toes & hopeful dogs

March 12, 2020

We all have hardship, and at times we all feel sad, beaten​ ​down or overwhelmed. The day my mother was diagnosed with cancer and the day she died were such times. We struggled. We didn’t always feel strong or on top. The doctors gave her 1 more year tops. Somehow she managed to wedge in 10 years between the day she was diagnosed and the day she took her last breath. Everyone who knew her described her as strong. But what does being strong mean? How do we go on when we are given 1 more year to live? I want to share two stories that leant us strength during those 10 years. I hope they will offer you strength in you in your personal hardship.

 

The first story is about stubbing your toe. You may stub your toe the first thing in the morning. You can groan about the pain, and you would be right doing so, it hurts! But then the rest of the day is still yours to do whatever you like with. You can let the stubbed toe make your mood sour and subsequently you can go on to have a marvelously hideous day. OR, you can take a deep breath, notice it hurts but choose to give the rest of the day a chance. After all, the day has just begun and why have a bad day just because you stubbed your toe? Also, for my mother, thinking about her days being numbered and that death is inevitable at times gave a perspective which made it easier to getting over such stubbed toe. Life is also made up of days where we stub our toe first thing in the morning, so why stub the whole day? Why sweat the small stuff?


How about the bigger stuff you may ask? To answer this question, I need to tell you a story about dogs. The researcher Martin Seligman [1] wanted to know what happened to dogs if he put them in a cage where the floors were wired with electrical shocks. They could escape the pain by jumping over a fence to the other side of the cage where the floor was safe. Would they jump? Yes, of course they did. It hurt! But Martin wanted to know what would happen if the dogs where electrocuted again and again. What would happen if hardship kept coming back, no matter how many times the dogs tried jumping over the fence? What he found was that the dogs learned how to become helpless, meaning that even if they at first tried to change their situation for the better by jumping over the fence, they sooner or later gave up if the electricity kept coming back. Next he wanted to know if the dogs that stopped jumping would jump again if he made it so that they would be safe on the other side. But he discovered that they didn’t. It was as if they had learned to give up all hope. He coined the phenomena “learned helplessness”.


However, he repeated the experiment many times and noticed that there were always some dogs that never gave up, no matter how many times they were shocked. In other words, some dogs refused to “learn” to be helpless. They always jumped, always had the hope of not being electrocuted on the other side. So he went on to run workshops where he taught students optimism. The results were promising and so he concluded that this too could be learnt. He called the phenomena “learned optimism” [2].


The take-home message is that you need not allow life to teach you to be helpless. You can always hope. Train in learning optimism. You can always jump. If you don’t, you will be stuck anyway, and how silly would it not be if all it took was one more jump to the other side where there is no electric floor anymore? Of course I am not saying jump blindly; optimism has to be balanced with some realism! Luckily, life isn’t a cruel experiment where we are being electrocuted. Most likely your hardships are a phase that will pass. Winston Churchill [3] said it well: ”If you’re going through hell, keep going.” By consistently taking small steps and well-needed breaks you’ll suddenly be able to look back and be amazed at how many miles, and possibly a marathon you have walked.

 

I hope metaphorically stubbing your toe and learning about these dogs will offer you strength when you feel at your wit’s end. And if you still need a pick-me-up, remember that each cell in your body has one objective, and one objective only: to do everything in their power to take care of YOU.

 

With love,
Sanya Folkesson

 

My mother "jumping"

 

References
[1] Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine. 23 (1), 407–412. doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203
[2] Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York: Pocket Books.

[3] McCalpine, F. (2010). 50 Sir Winston Churchill Quotes. Retrieved from
http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2015/04/50-churchill-quotes

 

 

 

 

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