In college I learned about something scientists call “learned helplessness.” It was first described in dogs, but since I like dogs, I won’t describe those experiments.
Here’s what it’s like in humans. Researchers gave people a task requiring intense concentration. While they were working, they were occasionally interrupted by a distracting noise. Some of the people were given a control to stop the noise, others weren’t. When they tested them afterward, people who were able to control the noise were happier than those who weren’t. The people with no control had learned they were helpless to do anything about their situation, and were less happy because of it.
Unfortunately, the world is teeming with problems that we can’t fix. People are looking for work, and can’t find it. The economy is not what it ought to be, whether you look at the “Eurozone” or on Wall Street — or neighbors whose home is being foreclosed. Business leaders point at government, and politicians point at the other party. There may be some people with buttons to fix those problems, but I’m not one of them. In a lot of different areas of my life, I have “learned helplessness.” Perhaps you have, as well.
That’s the problem faced by some people in the Bible. Their situation was different than ours today, but they had the same problem: they had learned helplessness. This is what Isaiah said to them:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold … the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you. …
Lift up your eyes all around, and see.
The people had learned they were helpless to improve their situation. They had been conquered by a foreign nation and there wasn’t any button they could push to get un-conquered. They were helpless, but Isaiah reminded them that God was not helpless. If they looked around, they would see God’s salvation.
Christians see Isaiah’s prophecy as pointing to Jesus, the savior who is the “light of the world.” Jesus is still at work in the world, but we can miss it, because we have learned helplessness. So this Christmas season, make a point to “lift up your eyes all around and see” what God is doing. There are areas we may be helpless, but none where God is.
(This article originally appeared in the Hi-Desert Star.)