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'Soul Of A Citizen' EXCERPT: Learned Helplessness

06/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To get more people engaged in critical public issues, we need to understand the obstacles. A key barrier is a political version of what psychologists call "learned helplessness":

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In the personal realm, most Americans are thoughtful, caring, and generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we'll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside break­down, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often, a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who've likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries--what we might call the gated community of the heart. We've all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship.

The reason many of us retreat from social involvement is not that we think all is well with the world. Rather, what leaves too many of us sitting on the sidelines is what psychologists call learned helplessness. Society has systematically taught us to ignore the ills we see, and leave them to others to handle. Understandably, we find it unsettling just to contemplate crises as profound in their implications as global climate change, or the slide of so many individuals and communities toward the economic abyss. We're led to believe that if we can't instantly solve every one of these problems, we shouldn't bother to become socially active at all--an outlook that's helped create the difficult situation we now face. We feel we lack the time to properly comprehend the issues we care about, and fear that no one will listen to what we say. Our impulses toward involvement face a culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes us feel naive for caring about our fellow human beings or the planet we inhabit. We wonder whether what we might try to do in the public sphere will simply be in vain.

For many, civic withdrawal has become the norm. Obama's campaign challenged this trend by inspiring vast numbers of previously disengaged citizens to become engaged in ways that shifted not only the presidential race, but also close races for the Senate, the House, and state governorships. (And of the 14 Democratic Senators who captured Republican seats in 2006 and 2008, all have voted well on key issues like health care, the stimulus package, and expanding student financial aid--it's been people like Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln and Kent Conrad that have been the problem.) But even in 2008, over a third of potentially eligible Americans ended up staying home. And the once-passionate volunteers have mostly been watching from the sidelines ever since, doing little beyond signing online petitions or letters.

Overcoming our impulses toward withdrawal requires courage. It requires learning the skills and developing the confidence to participate. It also requires creating a renewed definition of ourselves as active stakeholders. The importance of this direct participation was expressed thousands of years ago, by the ancient Greeks. In fact, they used the word "idiot" for people incapable of involving themselves in civic life. Now, the very word "political" has become so debased in our culture that we associate it almost inevitably with corruption. We've lost sight of its original roots in the Greek notion of the polis: the democratic sphere in which citizens, acting in concert, determine the character and direction of their society. "All persons alike," wrote Aristotle, should share "in the government to the utmost." Granted, he wasn't dealing with Exxon, Goldman Sachs, or Monsanto, but dealing with unimaginably powerful and arrogant institutions requires citizen participation all the more.

Reclaiming our political voice requires more than just identifying problems, which itself can feed our sense of overload. I think of an Arthur Miller play, "Broken Glass," whose heroine obsesses while Hitler steadily consolidates his power. From her safe home in Brooklyn, she reads newspaper articles about Kristallnacht: synagogues smashed and looted; old men forced to scrub streets with toothbrushes while storm troopers laugh at them; and finally, children shipped off to the camps in cattle cars. Her concern contrasts with the approach of her family and friends, who insist, despite the mounting evidence, that such horrors are exaggerated. Yet she does nothing to address the situation publicly, except to grow more anxious. Eventually she becomes psychosomatically paralyzed.

The approach Miller's protagonist takes toward the horrors of Nazism echoes that of far too many people who spend hours following every twist and turn of the 24-hour news cycle, yet never take action that might address them. It also resembles the condition of learned helplessness. People who suffer from severe depression, psychologist Martin Seligman found, do so less as a result of particular unpleasant experiences than because of their "explanatory style"--the story they tell themselves about how the world works. Depressed people have become convinced that the causes of their difficulties are permanent and pervasive, inextricably linked to their personal failings. There's nothing to be done because nothing can be done. This master narrative of their lives excuses inaction; it provides a rationale for remaining helpless. In contrast, individuals who function with high effectiveness tend to believe that the problems they face result from factors that are specific, temporary, and therefore changeable. The story they live by empowers them.

This is not to say that change is easy or that everyone is in an equal position to bring it about. Some individuals and groups in America possess far more material and organizational resources than others. This reflects our deep social and economic inequities. But as Tikkun magazine founder Rabbi Michael Lerner has observed, we often fail to use the resources we do have, which may be of a different kind. "Most of us," Lerner says, "have been subjected to a set of experiences in our childhood and adult lives that makes us feel that we do not deserve to have power." Consequently, we can't imagine changing the direction of our society. We decide that things are worse than they actually are--a condition Lerner refers to as "surplus powerlessness." Or we respond to the inevitable frustrations and setbacks that accompany social change by deciding that our efforts are simply futile.

The illusion of powerlessness can just as easily afflict the fortunate among us. I know many people who are confident and successful in their work and have loving personal relationships, yet can hardly conceive of trying to work toward a more humane society. Materially comfortable and professionally accomplished, they could make important social contributions. Instead they restrict their search for meaning and integrity to their private lives. Their sense of shared fate extends only to their immediate families and friends. Despite their many advantages, they, too, have been taught an "explanatory style" that precludes participation in public life, except to promote the narrowest self-interest.

Whatever our situations, we all face a choice. We can ignore the problems that lie just beyond our front doors; we can allow decisions to be made in our name that lead to a meaner and more desperate world. We can yell at the media and complain about how our leaders have let us down, using our bitterness as a hedge against involvement. Or we can work, as well as we can, to shape a more generous common future. While the latter path has no guarantees, it is also the sole path that offers real hope.

Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful...rich with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity."

Loeb also wrote "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004. HuffPo is serializing selected sections of "Soul" every Thursday. Check here to see previous excerpts or be notified of new ones. For more information, to hear Loeb's live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb's articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul's monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks From "Soul of a Citizen" by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.