Learned Helplessness
June 23rd, 2020 at 4:27 pm
Learned Helplessness

by Navid Saleh;

It was midnight on 14th December, 1971. The entire country has been ravaged by war for nearly nine months. “Mukti Bahini” (the liberation army of East Pakistan) has nearly defeated the West Pakistani forces. The smell of death and the fear of loss were slowly withering away. The war was nearing to an end. The tone of the newscasters and that of Chokku Mia of Charam Patra was becoming distinctly optimistic. His stories were mostly about the defeats of West Pakistani Armed forces and the expansion of the free zone or “muktanchol”, all around East Pakistan.

In such an hour, someone knocked at the door. It was rather a thud. Dr. Anwar Pasha, his wife Masina Begum and their two children Masarul and Rabiul looked at each other. They were terrified. Soon, the East Pakistani Army came through the doors of their Dhaka University apartment and picked up Dr. Pasha, a renowned novelist of his time. A sense of helplessness descended on Masina and her two children. They realized that they have lost him. The rock of their lives, the center of their livelihood, the only guardian that they had. Dr. Pasha was bayoneted to death for his sin of being a Bengali intellectual.  

Just like the Pasha family, over 200 families of East Pakistan’s (today’s Bangladesh’s) intellectuals heard the same thud that night. When they thought that the war was nearly over, when they began dreaming of a free land of their own, where their children will sing, write, and speak freely in Bengali, their dreams got shattered.

So was the dream of the newborn Bangladesh, which took birth with little infrastructure and a dearth of brain power to pull the country out of misery. This thud was heard by millions throughout the year in 1971. The local Razakars took the Pakistani Army to the doors of intellectuals and guerrilla fighters alike. The goal was to exterminate the Bengali spirit, the aspiration of a free country. This thud had become a symbol of death.

Those who have survived the war, with or without a loss of their immediate loved ones, surely have got scarred for life. A similar thud in January 1972 or December 1975 sounded the same to many. This thud represented helplessness, the fear of losing a loved one, the disquietude of imminent and irreparable damage to one’s family. Even though the people of the newborn Bangladesh were free with little possibility of a massacre by a foreign entity, the sense of helplessness was deep-set. The running away from doorways and hiding under the bed or inside a cupboard was only natural, whenever there was a thud on the door.

When a person faces a stimulus at a point in his/her life that causes tremendous distress or helplessness, that person becomes vulnerable to such a stimulus in future life. This is a psychological condition known as “learned helplessness”. Coined by Martin Seligman in early ‘70s, this theory has given a framework to analyze the physiological state of those who suffer a sustained fear, isolation, or helplessness after a loss in the family or a shock in his/her life. The thud for Pasha family, a folded U.S. flag for a fallen Marine, the last letter of a soldier from the war-zone, a phone call that shares a malignant or COVID-positive test result of a cancer patient or a feverish individual, are all such stimuli or triggers.

Today, we are going through a global pandemic. We have heard innumerable tales of helplessness as the doctors and scientists continue to struggle in this battle against an unknown and unseen enemy. We have no remedy, no vaccine, no treatment, no defense against this virus. We are truly helpless, globally.

No amount of wealth, military might, or scientific knowhow can come to our rescue. COVID-positive has become a harrowing term, a trigger of helpless state of affairs. Those among us, who have heard this term and suffered a loss of a loved one, may never get over this psychological state. A phone call or a text message will always bring back the memory of our loss. We will suffer from learned helplessness.

It is not a mere term to describe this condition, but this psychological state holds a deeper set of behavioral issues that can truly damage an individual. Learned helplessness can make a person depressed, disinterested to life, and even suicidal. We need to watch out for such a stimulus during this challenging time. We need to tell our family and friends that they are not helpless, that we are there for them, that they have a meaningful life ahead.

If a prisoner of Auschwitz can hold a memory with her beloved or a moment with his father or a smile of his daughter to get through the gut-wrenching years in a concentration camp, there is hope in our lives. We will live through this pandemic for our growing children, for their joy when they walk down the aisle, for holding our better-halves’ hand and walk in solitude, or for the smiles in glory of our soldiers in battlefield or the same of the doctors and nurses in combatting a pandemic. We have to remind them all that there is help, there is hope, and there is life still to be lived.

Dr. Navid Saleh is an Associate Professor at Civil Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA