Freedom from the trap of mastered helplessness – 1

I fell in love with it as soon as I read the specifications. My technical personnel at that time were also convinced that it would add significant value to our videos and still photographs. So I bought it. It was a Canon camera, one of the top in the range of their products at that time. When I brought it home and unpacked it, I brought out the manual and tried to get a hang of its functions. After fumbling with the gadget for a few frustrating times, I simply put it down because I felt that the functions and settings were too sophisticated for me and I would never be able to truly master them. And truly, I have not bothered to because I convinced myself that I could never do. The camera largely sits at home unless the technical crew needs to use it!

I am sure you can relate with my situation. You probably have an appliance or gadget in your house that you do not fully utilize, not because the gadget doesn’t have capacity for what you need it to do but because you don’t have the faintest idea how to make it function fully. A friend of mine used to buy the latest models of cell phones yet found it difficult to compose and send an sms! Incredible but true. Over time and for a long time, that incapacity became his reality. Most users of luxury cars hardly ever master all the capabilities of the vehicles. They stick with the familiar functions they require on a day-to-day basis!

Imagine yourself in the cockpit of a jumbo jet confronted with those meters, indicators and levers whose functions you could never think of deciphering? You marveled at how anyone could master that console. Deep down in you, you wished that you could fly a plane. But what did you tell yourself? Most likely that you could never fly a plane! Now imagine a situation where you were thirty thousand feet above sea level and suddenly the plane seems to be in some danger of crashing because of some situation in the cockpit. You are called to the cockpit to intervene and help land the plane while being guided on what to do from the control tower. You would fly and land that plane! So, the real issue is not that you could not otherwise have flown it if you really wanted to. It is that you have neither exercised the will nor mastered the skill to; so you concluded you could never fly a plane!

Few things on earth leave anyone as forlorn and frustrated as a feeling of helplessness over a matter. Over time, we turn our helplessness into a conviction that there is nothing we can do about it. I have met people who lost their jobs and five years thereafter, have not landed another job and have thus formed a victim narrative of helplessness around it that has become their reality.

As human beings, we love to feel that we are in control of the situations, relationships and experiences that we find ourselves in. Nothing frustrates us more than the feeling of not having or losing control of any of these situations. This is the sole reason for internalized aggression that ultimately leads to depression and sometimes suicide.

Our liberty comes from knowing and coming to terms with the fact that in reality, the only thing we have total control over is ourselves. In the words of Tony Robbins, “the state of the union is actually your state”. It is only in mastering ourselves that we are only able to effectively interrogate our circumstances and environment to know the difference between what we can or cannot do and what we will not do!

The real distinction is not in the activities or events but the way our minds process them to give us a perspective about them! Those perceptions shape our attitude and subsequent response manifesting in our conviction that blurs the line between what we cannot do as opposed to what we will not do!

I don’t swim; even though I still look forward to being able to learn how to. Why? In the summer of 1977 at the age of nineteen, I was on an international exchange programme in Canada. In my teenage years, my love for adventure was unparalleled. On a sunny afternoon in Kelowna, British Columbia, I went with my hostess and some of her friends who went water-skiing. As I saw them glide over the waters seemingly effortlessly, I thought, “That looks easy.” I decided to give it a try. So, they gave me the skiing shoes to wear and I was set to glide too! Except that as soon as the boat pulled out at full throttle, I found myself going headlong into the chilly water. One moment I was on the water and the next moment, I was under it. Thank God I had a life jacket on. The person in the boat didn’t even know what happened. He must have assumed that I would never have dared to ski without knowing how to swim! Instinctively, I let go of the rope and I was bobbed up to the surface gasping for breath. The adventurous streak in me wanted to try again. But for what I now know to be the grace of God, the result could have been even more disastrous. From that moment, I told myself that I would not even go near a river, not to talk of swimming in one! Hydrophobia became the face of my mastered helplessness when it comes to swimming!

Mastered helplessness begins with a referenced experience of internalized and personalized failure in our past which gives us a plausible internal dialogue and excuse for our helplessness in similar situations in future. More often than not, people never move beyond the referenced failures or the reported failure or tragic story of others whose experiences we simply appropriate to form our helplessness narrative. In order to reinforce our conviction, we find an explanation to make it appear that the experience was probably not even worth our while anyway. From that emerges our self-compensating but nonetheless paralyzing story that our helplessness is okay and to be desired.

You probably have heard the story of the fox that looked from a distance and saw a field of ripe grapes, white and red. Excited at the prospect of a great feast, it trotted towards the vineyard, determined to savour the delicacy that was so abundant there. This was the best vineyard it had ever entered and he was not leaving until he would have gorged himself. What he didn’t expect was that, as if in anticipation of an intruder, the owner of the vineyard had made raised platforms for the grapes, making them inaccessible to the fox. After repeatedly jumping a couple of times without being able to reach even one grape, the exhausted fox became thoroughly flustered and in exasperation, blurted out, “Why am I even bothering myself? They were all probably rotten anyway”! … continued


Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!



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