Thursday, June 20, 2013

On Learned Helplessness

I'm not really sure where to start with this. It's a topic that's been bothering me for quite some time - days, weeks, months, years, I'm not even sure how long. But in the past few weeks - no, let's say month and a half - it's been especially prevalent. It's been bothering me almost every conscious minute of every day not consumed by thoughts so immediate and pressing that they can't be ignored.

When the lights go out, and there's nothing but calm and quiet, this is where my mind goes.

But it hasn't been clear, or defined, or even all that evident what's been bothering me until tonight. I'm not going to claim to have had some tremendous insight. More of a final straw, as it were - except the straw has been there now for weeks, and it's only now done its allegorical duty. The camel's back has broken, not in a momentous, sudden 'snap!', but in a silent, shambling motion. The beast has sloughed to the ground, almost, but not quite, unnoticed.

I work in an insurance claim call center for one of the major competitors in the automobile and home insurance industry. I took a phone call from a man today who had had his home broken into not once, but twice, since yesterday. After coming home from work today he found that his personal space had been violated a second time in the same with, his belongings re-checked, as if the perpetrator of the act had realized they'd forgotten something valuable and had decided to destroy what semblance of safety and order he had left.

As I listened to him speak, I stopped hearing individual words. The meaning was taken, consumed, acknowledged - processed, as it were, for the sake of the conversation. Yet, this man was asking me a slew of questions for which I hadn't had the first idea of how to answer, because after exhausting all the avenues a normal, reasonable adult would take - the police, for example - and being told he was on his own, he didn't know who else to ask.

The questions themselves were simple. All of them revolved around a central question - What do I do, now? And it's this question that I heard, in every word he spoke, in every sentence he shared about his ordeal. Beneath the question itself, a plea - Please, tell me what to do.

I didn't have an answer for him. I didn't know who else would have the answer for him. I directed him to the people who would handle his claim, because that's all I knew how to do. I sent emails, both directly to the claims adjusters' email addresses and through the intake program we share for claims processing. Though the phrasing was different - curt, blunt, distanced, and professional - the central plea was the same. Please, tell him what to do.

As I left work, I felt the need to call my girlfriend. She had had a job interview earlier that day within the same company that is currently phasing out her department and planning to lay her off. I've been attempting to help her find employment in my own company, but beyond submitting a referral to our HR department, there is very little I can do to help. I wanted to know, immediately, how her interview had gone, despite knowing that I would see her in person within minutes of leaving the parking lot.

The interview went well enough. She may have a job next month. She may not. She's asked me several times in the past few weeks - Why won't anyone hire me? 

I don't have an answer. She's competent, professional, intelligent - all the things I would look for in an employee, were I to pick one. She knows I don't have the answer to the question she asks, but she asks it anyway, both to voice her frustration and because, at the heart of it all, the question is the same. Please, tell me what to do.

After she'd fallen asleep, I found myself lying awake in bed, as I have each night this week, thinking about a story I want to write for a friend who is in pain. I don't know why she is in pain. I've asked, and she hasn't wanted to tell me. Were she local, I would drive to her home with a six-pack, a dumb comedy, and good intentions. I'd do everything I could to help raise her spirits, and to hell with the cause - it's her business, and my job as her friend is to be there for her, regardless of what haunts her. I care for her feelings, even if I don't know what pains them.

But, she's not. So I lie in bed, and I think about a story. I think about how to write about the character she draws that represents her mood, and I think about how to write about it. I realize I don't know the first thing about this character. She has a story, a world, a context, a place to exist in that's filled with other characters, with other stories, with a rich history all its own that I hope one day to help discover.

But I don't know who she is. I don't know how to write her. I don't know how to take my own character, who is little more than a nebulous concept at best, and insert him into her world. I don't know how to open the door to a place unfamiliar, to a setting I don't understand, for the sake of writing a conversation between a vaguely felid dream-spirit and an anthropomorphic, sexually dimorphic gryphon. I don't know what a loose representation of my own helplessness and goodwill should or could say to another that would function to encourage and to reinforce and maybe, just maybe, provide some form of relief to my target audience of one.

I don't know why I can't just goddamned fucking talk to her.

I've been trying to write the first sentence of this story for a week. I have nothing. In its stead, I've sent her the occasional text, an instant message here and there, awkwardly reminding her that I am here if she needs me. It's the functional equivalent of telling her - I'm worried about you. Please, tell me what to do.

It's a selfish gesture. It reflects a lack of a sense of control, a learned helplessness, and places the solution in the hands of another. Worse - in the hands of someone who is already overwhelmed, already in pain, already seeking their own answers to their own questions.

Perhaps that's my grand realization - perhaps that's what prompted this stream of thought. I have a friend in pain and my automatic response, after heartbreak and poor health and financial hardship and day after day of looking at those I care for and love and having no answers, is to ask them to place their happiness in my palm, so that I may experience the satisfaction of handing it back to them. It's a request for control. It's self-serving and indulgent and disgusting and completely buried in genuine good intentions.

I want her to be happy, and I've been so focused on this notion that I never stopped to realize: in the pursuit of this goal, I am capable of being selfish. I am capable of alienating a friend. I am capable of hurting someone.

There is a phrase used in debate in courses on ethics: The end justifies the means.Though phrased as a statement, it is really a question - if the end product of a terrible act benefits more than it harms, is it really wrong? Yet, no one can truly know what will come of their actions. I wonder if a better question might be: Does the goal justify the means? or maybe, Can good intentions house selfish needs?, which leads to another question of historic debate, Is there any such thing as altruism?

I'm reminded of an intestinal parasite, living in an affable creature.

Maybe this is why, after years of careful consideration, the closest thing to a 'persona' that I've managed to invent has been a shapeless spirit that paints dreams, a being whose palette is chosen by his host, who takes buried emotion and turns it into color, into sound, into sensation. The emotion is already there, and the tools are predetermined. He is helpless to alter either. His job - no, his purpose - is to create something that, at its best, may leave his host with the tiniest sliver of understanding of who they, themselves, truly are.

His reinforcement - his reward - is the knowledge that his work may, once in a rare while, bring another soul one step closer to self-acceptance and peace. Yet his peace is not derived from the peace of others. His tranquility is a product of his own creation. He understands what drives him and, despite that, is no more or less inclined toward achieving his purpose purpose.

It's a lesson I need to learn. Whether or not I intentionally laid it before myself is something I may never know. It ultimately doesn't matter. What does matter is what's present - the fact that there are those I care for that are in pain, and that my response has been a combination of inaction and selfishness, guised in the acceptable social norms - I'm here for you, and You can talk to me if you want to.

To my friend: Though I'm certain none of this occurred to you to think of when I tried so hard to be a good friend, I'm sorry for losing track of how to actually be a meaningful friend. I don't need you to tell me what's going on. I don't need you to place your emotions in my hands. I don't need you to do anything - except, perhaps, to understand that I truly, deeply, sincerely care about your happiness. I want you to understand that I am sorry that you're in so much pain, that it pains me to see - to understand that I know you hurt, that it's okay, and that you needn't feel any pressure to pretend to be alright around me. I won't try to fix it for you - I know I can't. I won't try to tell you how - I know that you're the one person who knows best how to do that. I won't tell you how to feel - that's entirely your right, and I don't have the closest thing to a shred of authority over that.

Now let's go buy some goddamn shoes.

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