The typical picture given of learned helplessness is of a hawk staying in its cage, though the door is open and it is free to soar once again. The problem with this image is that, while certainly poignant, it minimizes the actual damage that precedes the state of learned helplessness. Abuse is almost always the precursor to a person deciding that they cannot escape their situations.
A feeling of powerlessness is a direct result of suffering mistreatment and contributes greatly to depression. The condition can progress to the point where a person will give up trying to escape the painful situation and instead, simply resign themselves to their apparently inevitable fate. Feeling powerless kills the human spirit! And this helplessness infects so many different areas of one’s life!
I learned quickly that any argument I made would make no difference to my narcissistic first husband. He simply brooked no discussion. In fact, if I needed something, anything, he made sure that was the one thing I would never get. I fought for several years because I did not grow up with learned helplessness. In fact, my parents were generally quite reasonable.
But twelve years of emotional abuse taught me to keep my emotions under wraps. If I had a disagreement with someone, I simply conceded and walked away. To my core, I believed that nothing I did or said would ever have an effect on anyone. After all, I had thrown myself against a brick wall long enough. No point in arguing. I could never win.
A couple years of counseling helped me identify that issue and begin to deal with it. My second husband was thrilled when I began pushing back. He wanted to know how I felt and what I wanted. It grieves me to say that I was shocked to learn this. I wasn’t a hawk skulking around in a cage afraid to fly. I was more like a monkey in a laboratory with wires attached to its arms and legs, no longer resisting the electrical shocks.
And after three hundred years of slavery so were the Hebrews. We judge them harshly for their lack of faith in the wilderness, but I think the true issue was less a lack of faith than learned helplessness. I know what it is like to be a slave. I was one for twelve years. I did all the work, from working to earn money to cleaning the house and raising the kids. He stayed in his office and shouted out orders. If anyone disobeyed, the punishment was swift and severe.
The Hebrews had three hundred years of this treatment. Generation after generation of powerlessness had taken away any agency. Here is the difficult truth behind such ingrained learned helplessness; while in Egypt, they were helpless. While living with my ex-husband, I had no agency until I escaped. The Hebrews couldn’t even escape because that would have required a total change of mindset much less an overthrow of the Egyptians. God worked on my mindset for a year before I finally escaped.
The incredible reality is that God knew this and prepared unbelievable miracles for the slaves to experience. He couldn’t just tell them, He had to show them His power. And Moses was the perfect person to lead them out. He grew up in the Pharoah’s house. No limiting beliefs there. He could do and be anything he wanted.
In the wilderness, the Hebrews had to experience life lived on very different terms than they were accustomed to. I so identify with that reality. I still have to remind myself that I have authority over my own life. I am no longer helpless and in fact, I am called to a spirit of power. And just as He did for the Hebrews, God arranged miracle after miracle the first few years on my own. He was my cloud by day and my pillar by night.
It does not surprise me that it took a whole generation to prepare for the taking of the promised land. Just imagine. The children of the first generation out of Egypt grew up witnessing demonstrations of God’s provision, Moses’ authority, and miraculous signs. I have written before that while intellectual knowledge easily replaces intellectual knowledge, it takes experiential knowledge to change core belief systems.
If the Hebrews were to become the Israelites and overtake the giants in the land, they had to understand both who they were and who God was. Learned helplessness needed to be transformed into learned conviction. In disciplining the complaining and weak Hebrews in the desert, God and Moses were training up the next generation in preparation for a destiny larger than any slave ever dreamt of.
Typically, the crossing of the Red Sea is a metaphor for leaving a life of slavery to sin (Egypt) and into salvation. The wilderness is a type of carnal Christianity, where we must learn to take authority over the sin in our lives.
I think this works on another level as well. As unbelievers, we suffer from a learned helplessness to sin. Depression, anxiety, lust, anger…you know the list of conditions we all encounter. It takes time to discover that we do not have to be a slave to the flesh or to the wayward thoughts in our minds. Just as I have had to learn that I need to speak up and say my piece, Christians must learn to take authority over the various bondages that afflict them.
But now, the Promised Land awaits. Not the day to day suffering from the same conditions we suffered before we knew Jesus, but answers to our problems, provision for our needs and victory over our enemies. The life of a Christian is a one of moving from glory to glory, not from bitter defeat to bitter defeat.
Do sorrows still come? Of course. But our hope is not empty and our prayers are not void. The negative mindset of the Hebrews did not cost them their salvation. They no longer had the Egyptians with their whips and chains. But the chains in their mind kept them from a land flowing with milk and honey. Let it not be so for us!
Learned Optimism was a Godsend to my husband and me. The Healing Light is a book that is an inner healing standard. It fills me with new hope everytime I read it! As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commision from purchases at no cost to you.