Recovery Journal: Learned Helplessness and the Theology of the Abused (Part 1)

Part 1: My identity is not in Christ, it is in Seligman’s dogs.

During my Introduction to Psychology class at Pasadena City College we covered something briefly that I think was very impactful for my life and I’m sure my future work with abuse survivors and addicts.  It helped me understand better my struggle with faith, my struggle with many teachings of the Church and even the words of the Bible.

In discussing proper psychological experimentation, control groups, placebos and such Dr. Kiotas used the work of Martin Seligman as an example. As she explained it Seligman put dogs in one control group in inescapable cages and applied electrical shocks to their feet.  Eventually the dogs, realizing they could not escape to pain, simply lied down and whimpered.  Faced with uncontrollable pain they gave up and accepted their situation.

A new group of dogs were brought into the experiment and both groups of dogs were tested in the same way only this time it was possible for both groups to escape their cages.  Dogs from the second group quickly escaped their cages without exception.  They easily saw the means of escape and took it. However, the dogs who had previously learned they could not escape the shocks in the first experiment simply laid down and whimpered again, even though the cages themselves were visibly different.

Then the two groups of dogs were tested in sight of each other.  The belief was that the easy escape of some dogs would show the dogs who were subjected to the inescapable cages that they could escape as well. Seligman found that only 30% of the time did the escape of the previously untested dogs provide enough of a precedent for the dogs who had learned to be helpless to attempt and succeed at their own escape.

This all lead Seligman to pioneer the concept of “learned helplessness,” a condition in “which a human being or an animal has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help avoid an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected.” Seligman came to suggest that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from this condition which arises from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation or the violence and/or pain one is suffering.

When Dr. Kiotas was explaining the experiment I strongly identified with the dogs that were shocked in the inescapable cages.  While it might sound odd that I would identify with a bunch of laboratory dogs, I too was subjected to a lot of pain I could not escape.  As a young child I had absolutely no chance of escaping my home or my arthritic body. Like many abuse survivors I was completely dependent on my abusers, had no financial resources to leave, and no place to go. No one helped.  God did not respond after literally years of prayer.

There appeared to be only one way to escape this situation and stop the pain and that was suicide, which was a very real option at times. Every time I drive through the intersection of Dragoo Park Drive and Sylvan I am reminded of a time when I was about to drive my car into oncoming traffic hoping that a driver’s side impact would kill me and conceal my suicide.

While I am here, I would like to say I hate it when people suggest that suicide is a selfish thing to do.  I think only people who have never been faced with the cold reality that not living might be better than living can say such a thing.  It doesn’t even make sense when you think about it. Self-annihilation is quite the opposite of selfishness.

However, I ultimately decided against suicide and to cope with my situation I accepted both physical and emotional pain as inescapable. Like Seligman’s dogs I lied down and accepted the pain. Life, I told myself, was just always going to be this hard.  And why not?  As a result of the abuse that went on into the home I had come to believe I was a bad and worthless person, and bad and worthless people probably deserve a life like this.

This learned helplessness has had a crippling effect on my life over the years. While there is certainly some pain that is inescapable, like my arthritis, I have wrongfully perceived every painful circumstance as inescapable.  As such, I have failed to make decisions and take action to work my way out of hard places or mitigate painful experiences. Failing to make normal rational decisions to leave painful relationships or situations behind has led to self-destruction, self-sabotage, and even self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand I have not endured inescapable tragedy that strikes us all trusting that such things will only last a season. Instead I have seen such tragedies as the way it will always be for me.

Sadly, I have always had a high view of God’s sovereignty and agency in this world. That meant that I understood many painful experiences as a punishment from God.  After all, if such painful experiences were not caused by Him, why would He not intervene? Doesn’t God work out all things for the good of those who love Him? (I must not love him enough.)  Doesn’t He have plans to prosper me and not to harm me but give me a hope and a future? (Apparently these promises are for other Christians.) Isn’t He close to the broken-hearted? (Do I really want the God who broke my heart to be close to me? And when and where is this comfort ever going to come.)

Realizing this about myself in a deep way and more importantly, realizing this was a result of things beyond my control that I was subjected to, has had a huge impact on me that I am still sorting out.

Just recently my struggle with faith had come up again.  In the midst of heading to Modesto to confront my parents well meaning friends had promised to pray for the upcoming conversation.  I accepted their offers but quietly acknowledged I expected absolutely no help from God in this matter and was not praying about it myself.  I did not believe that God was going to intervene and supernaturally impact my though processes, those of my parents, or the situation as a whole for the better.  Why would He?  And if God was going to do so now, where had He been when the abuse was going down?  If He was going to answer these prayers, why had He not answered or even responded to countless other prayers of mine?

Whenever I struggle like this, I inevitably feel like it is a reflection on my worth as a person.  I have seen many other Christians go through much deeper trials and maintain their faith. I must be a “Doubting Thomas” that Jesus would rebuke, or a Christian who fails to believe in what I cannot see. Very rarely I am directly told this by other Christians. The conclusion I come to, usually on my own, is that I am a weak or “bad” Christian. This over the years has ultimately only served to reinforce my belief that I am a bad and worthless person.

However, as I mulled over learned helplessness in the five hour drive home, I started to ease up on myself. I saw that just as it would be ridiculous for cancer patients to be mad at themselves for not being able to run a marathon while going through chemo treatment, so it is likewise ridiculous to be mad at myself, a child abuse survivor, for struggling with faith. My struggle with faith is the struggle all abuse survivors. We have to try and make sense of an allegedly loving and powerful God and our experiences in this life. And who can easily see and know a loving God through a lens of personal terrors, some of which cannot even be articulated?

We read the same scriptures other Christians do, but with a host of life experiences they do not. We may experience the very same hardship another Christian goes through, but a Christian coming from a more stable home with “good enough” parents might have a wealth of positive experiences of God to draw from.  From these experiences their faith can eventually, if not immediately, absorb tragedy as a trial or one-time exception to the general rule of God being loving and caring. We, on the other hand, do not have access to a wealth of such experiences to balance the scales in favor of a loving God.  A very reliable pattern of terrible experiences teaches us to expect the worst from life and far from being an exception, hardship is the rule. To declare God as loving we either have to suspend all of our experiences from our estimation of God’s character or have a lot of new experiences with this loving God. While it may be easy for some to suggest that our experience of God should not inform our theology this is essentially tantamount to denial and I believe a shallow caricature of faith. The first option sounds like denial and one cannot force the second.  If God is not going to act, or you are too wounded to see God acting on your behalf, it’s just not going to happen.  In the words of one of my peers, “I need God to do a miracle.”

Not only do we have a harder time seeing a loving God but sometimes we are outright enraged and incensed at Him. If we were spiritual at the time of the abuse or come to faith later we are often more angry at God for not intervening than the actual abusers themselves. Abused persons are often more angry at those they perceive as having been powerful enough to have stopped the abuse but did not.  If God is as powerful as He says He is, certainly He could have stopped the abuse.  So why didn’t He?  Where was the God that was ever-present in the time of trouble when all this heinous stuff was going down?  While this might look like a classic struggle with theodicy, it is, in my opinion a different ball-game.  It is a struggle with theodicy that is highly personal, pervasive and tinted with trauma and one that usually starts very early.  This is not a well-adjusted thirty year old person dealing with the unexpected death of their child in a car accident in the midst of a caring Christian community.  This is a vulnerable child struggling to see a loving God in the midst of abuse that happened in the past, exists in the present, and shows no sign of stopping. The question might be the same but the players are very different.

From this very bleak place we have to try and find our way to a loving God and this is very difficult if not impossible for some.  It is not abnormal but normal for such persons to struggle to attain and maintain to any relationship with Christ.  In fact, I would be highly suspicious of anyone who came from such a background and professed to have easily believed in a loving God and never to doubted His benevolence.

This realization that my struggle with faith is a natural and obvious by-product of my woundedness, not a sign of weakness or a defect in my person, was very freeing and I would hope other abused persons would “get this” as well. This of course launched me into thinking about how this has impacted my relationship to other Christians, the Church, and Christian theology and teaching.  But I will address that in a second post.


About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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4 Responses to Recovery Journal: Learned Helplessness and the Theology of the Abused (Part 1)

  1. Jane says:

    Dude, reading this was like taking a weighing lie off my shoulders. Good word bro.

  2. Pingback: The Ex Factor: …and then I tried to pick up the pieces… « Speak Faithfully

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