Even the faintest breeze

I want to share, today, some of the amazing people I see here at Holladay Park Plaza—the retirement center where Bette and I have wound up. But I don’t want to start there. I want to start with some dogs who have learned things that cramp their style.

breeze-2One of the great pleasures of teaching my Political Psychology class [1] over the years was introducing my students to Martin E. P. Seligman’s marvelous book, Helplessness. The focus of the book was on a particular cognition—something you had learned. And what you had learned is “there is nothing I can do.”

There are, of course, fatalistic religions and philosophies which teach that there is, in fact, nothing you can do and acquiescence or acceptance or even just submission is the relevant virtue. But Seligman studied dogs [2] where these religions and philosophies are not considered seriously as far as we know.  There are two conditions about these dogs that I would like to use as the introduction to the amazing people I mentioned at the beginning.

The experimental apparatus doesn’t need to be described at any length here, but it might help to know that some of the dogs were exposed to an electric shock in one end of a two-compartment box and they had to jump over a low partition into the other end to stop getting shocked. No dog was ever unable to learn that. The light comes on; that means that the shock will start in X seconds; no need to hurry, says the experienced dog.  At X-1 seconds, the dog lopes over to the barrier and jumps over it. [3]

On the other hand, some dogs were leashed to the shock end of the box and there really was nothing they could do about it and some, after a while, showed every sign of acquiescence, acceptance, or submission. That’s a lot to say about a dog, but I wanted to re-use that really nifty sequence one more time. These dogs  had learned that they were helpless and coped with it the best they could.

Then the leash was removed. Did the dogs leap over the barrier at the first opportunity? Nope. Because these were “educated dogs.” [4] They had degrees in the School of Hard Shocks. They had learned that there was nothing they could do and now that there actually was something they could do, they didn’t notice.

Imagine a dog from the first condition having a conversation with a dog in the second condition. “Hey. Look! There’s no leash on you anymore. You’re free! All you have to do is jump over this little barrier.”

breeze-5The educated dog lies there. The light comes on. Eventually, the shock starts. The educated dog lies on the floor looking philosophical.  The first dog says, “Hey. Like this. See? The light comes on, I jump over the barrier. Neither of us is wearing a leash. Come on! It’s not hard. Just Do It.” The second dog doesn’t respond because he knows it is no use and he continues to “know” that even when safety is a few easy feet away. This dog in exhibiting “learned helplessness,” which is the subject of Seligman’s early work.

With that much to go on, let’s consider what a Truly Amazing Dog (TAD) would do. A TAD would continue to check the conditions of his confinement to see if they still apply. They always have. So far. [5] A TAD understands all too well what the verb “pay” means in the expression “pay attention” and he is willing to continue to pay that price although paying it has never bought him anything. Light, check the leash, shock, keep checking the leash; choose resignation, but don’t stop watching for any change in the sequence that might hint at changes.

Then, one day, he is not leashed. What happens? Well, for a regular dog, nothing happens. He stands or sits or lies there and gets shocked. For a Truly Amazing Dog, he leaps over the barrier and finds safety. And if, on the next day, the leash is back, he goes back to the sequence: light, check leash, shock, keep checking, etc.

Just about done with the dogs. Stay with me.

If all we cared about, in looking at this situation, was how to manage the greatest number of escapes on those days when escape was possible, this “amazing” dog would not be amazing. Smart, diligent, successful…but not amazing. But I want to look at this in a different way. I want to look at what it costs the dog to be aware, always aware, of the possibility of “success.”

“Success” in the case of this particular dog means “escape.” But now I want to turn to the breeze-7old people. I had seen a lot of Truly Amazing Elders (TAE) before I came to Holladay Park Plaza, but I had never seen such a concentration of old people before. There is nothing like living in a retirement center to see a lot of old people, after all.

And in these old people (myself included, of course) I see the same kinds of responses Seligman found in his dogs. [6] And the ones I am calling Truly Amazing Elders are those who are “leashed” most of the time, but are always alert to any moment when they are not. “Leashed,” obviously, is a metaphor. We don’t put anyone on a leash here at HPP. But some people carry their oxygen around with them. Some must take a walker everywhere they go. Some carry their grief for the loss of a much-loved spouse everywhere they go. Some carry the burden of “I used to be important and now I am not” everywhere they go. Once we know we are talking about metaphors, just what constitutes a “leash” can be quite varied.

But now that we know we are talking about metaphorical constraints, it is time to go back to what it costs to be ready to take advantage of anytime the leash is not there. If you have a persistent pain in your shoulder, you do not, as a rule, say, “I wonder if today will be a good day for a swim.” Why? Because holding onto a world in which you always might be free to swim—a world in which you did not have that incapacitating pain in your shoulder—takes a lot of effort. It is a lot easier to ignore the possibility than to consider, over and over again, whether you might be free to do it this time.

At the risk of sounding pathetic, I admit that I have had that choice presented to me on occasion. I remember that I was in some kind of funk for several days [7] and was surprised to notice, one afternoon, that I wasn’t “in it” anymore. And I wondered how long I had been free of it (no leash) and just hadn’t noticed because what I knew about myself was that I was in a funk and they last a long time.

I remember discovering that a lingering feeling of grievance (it had been anger, originally) had blown away. It was gone when I noticed it. I wondered whether, if I had been paying attention, I would have seen it go away. If I had, I might have been able to think back on anything I might have done that had helped it move on. I didn’t get to ask that question—you will agree, I hope, that it is a question with a good deal of promise—because I wasn’t paying attention.

breeze-8If I had really wanted a restoration of that relationship, wanted it urgently, I think I would have noticed when the grievance left. So what I called “a failure of attention” at the time (I just didn’t notice when the grievance stopped) may actually have been a failure of will (I just didn’t want it badly enough). So to translate this everyday catastrophe back into the world of Seligman’s dogs, I didn’t want to be free of the leash badly enough to notice when I actually got free.

I think of it sometimes as a sailor becalmed. You really want to go somewhere—back to the dock, for instance, and then home and then to dinner—but a sail is what you have and there is no wind. [8] That sailor will notice every faint breeze. He might notice anything that “might possibly be a breeze” or might become a breeze. If there is a feeling in the air that precedes a breeze and that indicates that a breeze is coming, I am sure he would notice that as well. He wants that breeze urgently and he is willing to pay (the cost of) the kind of attention that assures instant awareness.

I said that I see a lot of people here at HPP who are “leashed” to something. I had to say that first so that I could say this second. I see a lot of people here who seem to be alert to the faintest breeze; who are alert to any occasion when taking a deep breath seems suddenly easy or when dinner suddenly smells really good or when the walker I am using to keep my balance suddenly seems almost to be moving on its own and I am walking along with it.

You will not—trust me on this—celebrate those events if you don’t notice them and you will not notice them if you take for granted that they are always there and always will be there. If you know, in short, that you are permanently leashed, then you will not inflict on yourself the pain of always checking to see if the leash might not be there today.

And every day, I see people around me who are willing to notice any small decrease in discomfort or any sudden increase in hope or even in appetite. I celebrate those people. I admire their courage. They are Truly Amazing Elders and I want to get to know them well enough to learn how they do it.

[1] For my Westminster College friends who took this same material under the heading Political Behavior, I haven’t forgotten what we called it back then, but I last taught this material under that name in 1980—36 years ago—and at Portland State, it was always Political Psychology.
[2] Mostly. The findings turned out to apply to mice and rabbits and squirrels, etc. as well.
[3] I saw film of this same experiment on goldfish. The experienced goldfish loiters near the line and at the last minute, flips its tail and gets to safety. The lecturer, noting the tendency to wait until the last minute, called this a “grad school goldfish.”
[4] I don’t mean to be all snarky about “educated dogs.” The dogs that learned that they could always jump the barrier and escape the shock were “educated dogs” too. But their education had been designed to lead them to a different conclusion.
[5] “The triumph,” as Samuel Johnson says of second marriages, “of hope over experience.”
[6] The full set has four conditions: a) always free to escape, b) free at first, then leashed, c) leashed at first, and then free, and d) always leashed. I want to write sometime about b) because there is a great story there, but today, I am thinking about c).
[7} I say “depressed” when I am talking to myself, but that word has become a diagnosis with some boundaries of meaning to it and I don’t have the credentials to use it except in my own inner dialog.
[8] I am no sailor, so I may get some of the mechanics wrong, but I do know about wanting to be home and safe.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Even the faintest breeze

  1. thinkydoug says:

    That leash metaphor is a powerful one, and you’re absolutely right that it takes someone pretty extraordinary to continually check to see if it’s still there. It’s so much easier to not check, isn’t it? I’d love to be the kind of person who recognizes the moment I’m no longer constrained the way I was, evaluate what that means, and act on that based on the new paradigm, but that’s asking a lot of a dog. 🙂

    • hessd says:

      It is asking a lot of any of us, I think. But the potential payoff is huge and then there is that thing of being proud of doing a difficult thing. I’m so glad you liked the metaphor.

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