It happened a few days ago while I was walking back to office from lunch. There was this bus which dashed past me and halted at the bus stop 30 meters ahead to pick up the passengers. Behind me were two ladies who were running at an incredible speed in hope to catch the bus. I estimated that their running speed was comparable to 1/100th that of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. Sorry, but I just couldn’t see how they could manage to catch the bus, knowing how bus drivers speed away these days whenever possible. Pardon me if you are a bus driver reading this!
I chuckled as they ran past the 30m start point, thinking that they would never make it. As they ran past the 20m checkpoint, I said to myself that the bus would hit on the road again, leaving the two ladies running in vain. But it didn’t. My heart was pounding when they passed the 15m. Would the bus wait for them? 10m left. I could almost hear myself cheering and rooting for them. 5m. I was wondering why I would even entertain the thought that they could never make it to begin with! So what happened at the end, you asked? They got on the bus! And the message hammered itself into my head as if God has spoken – never ever give up!
In fact, Dr Archibald D. Hart wrote in one of his books that “helplessness is at the core of all pessimism, but it is nothing more than a belief issue. You learn it and stop trying new behaviors, simply because you maintain the pessimist's grand play: ‘I've tried that before and it didn't work, so why try it again this time because it won't work again.’ It doesn't matter how often you have tried something and it never worked, the optimistic way is to try it again! Who know, maybe it will work this time.
This is such an important point, yet so easy to implement, that I want to drive it home by describing a very well-known experiment that illustrate how stupid we, as humans, can be when it comes to allowing our erroneous beliefs to control us. You will need a room, preferably with heavy curtains or no windows to remove any outside frame of reference, then two subjects groups. Have a table in the center of the room around which the subjects can sit. Then a wall-mounted switch, the only one in the room, connected to a very loud and piercing alarm that can be activated or not.
Phase 1: Bring in the first group of subjects. Tell them they must just sit or wait for a while until someone comes to talk to them, and they mustn't leave the room. You leave the room after a while turn on the loud piercing alarm from outside the room. Wait and see what happens. The subjects cover their ears to shut the sound. Sooner or later one will notice that there is a switch on the wall and will get up and try the switch. Lo and behold, it turns off the sound.
Phase 2: Bring in the next group of subjects without having had any contact with the first group. Same scenario. This time immobilize the only switch in the room. Turn on the loud alarm. These students also try to shut out the sound until someone gets up and tries the switch. But this time it does nothing. The subjects settle down round the table commiserating with each other about how terrible the noise is until you return and excuse them.
Phase 3: Repeat the experiment with both groups, but this time mobilizes the switch for both groups so that it does turn off the alarm. The first group who found the switch to work, immediately turns off the alarm. But the second group, for whom the switch didn't work the first time, just settles down passively to accept the painful sound. Not one of them will get up and try the switch.
Why does the second group accept that the switch will never work to shut off the sound? Because the first time they tried, it didn't work. This is the phenomenon of "learned helplessness," the belief, and that's all it is, that nothing you try ever works. For a long time in my life, I have known about this phenomenon, and it still amazes me how often I catch myself not doing something that needs to be done, just because I don’t believe it will work. Whether it is in the arena of my work as a professor or in my personal life, I have slowly learned that one must just keep trying and trying and trying. One of my favorite quotations comes from Sir Winston Churchill, whose bust sits on my desk to remind me of it all the times: ‘Never give up, never, never, never, never. never ~’ No truer word has been spoken.”
Beg God for the Miracle of Humility
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