Sunday, March 4, 2018

March 4, 2018 Learned Helplessness

As we have been reflecting on our experiences here, a thought came that helps me understand some of the things we have struggled with during our time in Ghana.  Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of “learned helplessness”.

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid.  The animal learns that it is helpless, accepts that it has lost control, and gives up trying even in new situations where escape or avoidance might be effective.  I was introduced to it in the domain of continuous improvement, where those who might help solve problems fail to participate because they have been put down so many times that they have given up trying to make a difference.

There are many aversive stimuli in our current situation which we are unable to avoid or control.    For example, I went to the MTC this afternoon to help the missionaries enter family names in Family Search for ordinances.  While we were working, the power went off at least 5 times.  Each time required a reboot of the computers.  We don’t control power outages; we don’t control the air conditioning going off either at home or the temple; we don’t control when the hot water goes off for 6 weeks; we don’t control whether or not what we are looking for at the grocery store will be there this week, or next; the list goes on.  Most of these are annoyances and inconveniences but they do tend to add up.

Fortunately there are many things that we do control: our scripture study, our exercise, when we get up and go to bed, how well we serve, how kind we are to others, etc. etc.  It is by focusing on those things that we maintain enough control of our lives that we don’t get depressed or give up.

One of the satisfying activities of the last couple of months has been playing golf.  Some may find that for them the game is definitely a painful stimulus, without any real control.  I have been playing every preparation day for about 18 months as soon as it is light enough to see.  No warmup, no driving range, just arrive, do 10 minutes of putting, and set out.  Some days good, other days bad, but always enough good shots to keep going back.  For some reason, I have been able to relax a lot more in the past couple of months during the game and not try to force the shots.  In doing so, the scores have come down about an average of 6-8 shots per round, and last Monday I shot a personal best!  Perhaps things are going better because to a degree I have given up trying to be “in control” and focused on basics.  

Are we really in control of what is happening in our lives?  No definitely not. God is in control, and He doesn’t often tell us what is happening next.  We can set goals, set out to accomplish good things, work hard, etc. but in the end we are not in charge and the sooner we recognize that and leave the driving to Him, the sooner we will achieve greater happiness and experience less frustration.  Our own striving should continue, but with a greater degree of faith and confidence that in the end things will turn out ok even if they don’t turn out how we thought they would.

Fun after a long week, with Sr. Graham, Piersons, Pothiers, Sr. Roy, and the Spackmans, with Pres. Graham behind the camera. 


  1. I know that the time is at hand when this blog will end. I have enjoyed reading it each week. I will miss reading it and feeling inspired by your experiences and your service. Thanks for including us on your mission. The great thing about the end of this mission is that we are looking forward to your return and your visit to San Antonio. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We greatly appreciate your time and efforts to provide so much useful information about our upcoming time in Ghana. It has made all the difference. Thanks for sharing your experiences on this blog. May the Lord continue to bless you in the future and may you have a safe and pleasant journey home.

    Kind Regards,
    Marsha and Craig Cheney