Monday, August 2, 2010

Facing Helplessness; Or, "I'M Captain Kirk!"

I. Learned Optimism

You know the concept of learned helplessness?
Some psychologist (Martin Seligman) realized that inadvertently, certain lab tests were training dogs to become helpless. The scientists gave the dogs a mild shock, and the dogs had no way to avoid it, so later when they DID have a way to avoid it, they didn't even try to.
Seligman demonstrated humans do the same thing, as we can easily see.

What I just learned, however, is that Seligman got more interested in the fact that a whopping 30 percent of humans and other animals do NOT stop trying. And 10 percent never tried at all in the first place.

So his life work became trying to figure out how we might learn and teach optimism--something called positive psychology (it's a whole dept. at U Penn.
(I haven't watched it yet, but he gives a TED Talk, On Positive Psychology.)

II. The Concentration Camp of the Mind

My mother taught me young that the Holocaust reflects true human nature (a person is either evil, culpably ignorant, or an innocent--and helpless--victim). She ridiculed cheerful thinking as shallow.

I eventually jettisoned her philosophy as innacurate and unhelpful--formed by her own intermittent experiences of existence as an inescapable concentration camp and the outside world as generally populated by shallow and callous people--but its power flickers seductively on the edges of my vision. ("Come back, come back, and all will be made clear").

So I'm always looking for anchors to hold in place my belief--my experience--that it is possible to be good, happy, and smart. While I cringe at simplistic Pollyanna-ish thinking, complex Pollyanna-ish thinking appeals to me a lot.

III. Reclaiming the Inner Captain Kirk

Uh, anyway, when I read about the dogs that never (never never never) give in, I recognized it as the Captain Kirk Phenomenon.
I do not have this.
But I do have a sort of squashed and battered resilience.

My mother always had mixed feelings about the parts of me that were at all Kirkian. She liked my cheerful nature, but she was suspicious that it might indicate lack of depth.
And so I, even after an adulthood of rejecting her equation, still feel mixed. I want to be optimistic--it's in my nature--but I scoff at it too.
Mostly, though, I love any sign that it has survived the early onslaught of pessimism, and I continually struggle to reclaim it, free and clear.

I took one of the Learned Optimism tests and I was cheered that I only rank "mildly pessimistic."
Pretty good, considering.

I was even more cheered this morning when I went looking in my iPhotos for a picture of Kirk, for something unrelated.
iPhoto has a feature called "Faces" that finds all the photos showing a certain person's face--you just provide an example for it to work from.
The program isn't always correct, of course, and its mistakes are sometimes amusing.

This morning I saw that iPhoto had added a photo of me (from the red wall series I took earlier this summer) to the "Kirk Faces." Along with a couple other characters. Proof, that, after all, I'm Captain Kirk!
(OK, that Moomin shot contains Kirk's face on a mug, but I like to think it's the Moomin herself (this is Snorkmaiden)--the Moomin are a prime example of complex optimism--Tove Jansson created them out of her depression during World War II in Finland--and that's depression at -40 degrees.)

I'll throw in 19 seconds of Churchill too. Can't pin Easy Optimism on him.
"Never give in!"

Can we re-invigorate our squashed optimism, after it's been buried under a rubbish heap of intelligent pessimism?

I think so, at least partly. (My mild pessimism permit cautious optimism on this point.)
So, I've enrolled in "Reclaim Your Inner Kirk, 101" at C-KAPE (the Captain Kirk Academy for the Pursuit of Excellence), where I've been studying for a couple years now.
All are welcome.


ArtSparker said...

Either/or thinking (frequently exemplified in the victim/villain dichotomy) in itself is the big lie for me - file under life should be so simple. We all do it, of course, because it's a way of handling complexity.

bink said...

Sign me up!

Did you heard Winston Churchill's false (partial upper) teeth were just sold at auction. I think they went for over $20,000. The interesting thing I learned is that they were made purposely loose/ill-fitting so that he maintained that slurry speech he was known for.

Margaret said...

I hereby enroll!

I always thought Spock was optimistic, too. Or at least not pessimistic, (I think it would take a lot of energy to sustain pessimism while working alongside Kirk; and action tends to follow optimism more closely than pessimism, so in a twisted way, it's logical).
He's sort of mindfully optimistic with zero enthusiasm - a gentle check for Kirk's more bombastic optimism.

I don't know how conscious Kirk's optimism is; it seems more instinctive like with the 30 percentile of dogs who kept trying, as if it doesn't occur to him NOT to do something to change the situation.

(why he's the goddamn captain)

Lill said...

After a lifetime of pessimism at the level of clinical depression -- and then finding out that depressives are actually more accurately perceptive of reality -- I'd say a nature that is optimistic is an incredible blessing. Nontheless, optimism's un-naturalness aside, it is what has allowed us to survive as individuals and as a species.

Your mother was right--optimism shows a lack of depth -- but the realists don't make it, the optimists do.

Fresca said...

SPARKY: Complexity is all!
(You and I share some life themes, eh?)

BINK: That is kinda creepy--why would anyone want Churchill's (or anyone's) false teeth?
But what a fun fact!

M'RET: Yes, Spock had a different kind of optimism than Kirk's--more of a *chosen* one, perhaps, vs. Kirk's instinctive one (as you say, and I agree).

You are hereby enrolled in C-KAPE. I should make some official documents/macros for that...

NANCY: As one of my favorite poems puts it,
"Sometimes things don't go from bad to worse."
(The perfect poem for a mild pessimist, by Sheena Pugh.)

I wouldn't say optimism is necessarily shallow, though it can be. The Dalai Lama, for instance, can seem childish, but he's incredibly sophisticated.

bink said...

I have to say pessimism can totally go hand-in-hand with shallowness. You can't get a more "realistic" person than my mother....or hardly a shallower one.

Pessimists might like to console themselves with the idea that they may not enjoy life, but at least they are deep, but I think that's a big lie.

All the people I admire most in the world--people like Desmond Tutu--who are full of big ideas, and make big changes, are also full of great joy and optimism. People like Tutu look evil right in the face--realistically, too--but "never give up" as Churchill says.

The "just be happy and think good thoughts" patina is obviously shallow... but true optimism? No. I think it's even deeper than true pessimism.

Bianca Castafiore? said...

oh, i love you!

now... reacting to a commentary on a comment: i hate sheena pugh but love her poem. have you read her "on" the poem? jeez louise.

i've nothing piffy to say, except that one of the happier segments of my life (the current segment, believe it or not!) was kicked off by the late-breaking realization that i was neither deep nor cool, and never would be if i stayed married to pessimism.

let's hear it for messy, complicated optimism.

i plan to die laughing (with tears in my eyes...).

Bianca Castafiore? said...

oh lord, i keep forgetting i am not talking to myself, alone, in the kitchen. with a cat.

i do not HATE ms. pugh. i am disappointed that she HATES her wonderful poem so much.

that's all.

Fresca said...

BINK: I'm with you! I should have defined more clearly what I mean by optimism, maybe:
NOT the "smile, it can't be that bad" lie
but ...well, just what Tutu & Co. are skilled in.
I want to learn those skills!

BIANCA?: Oh, I don't know anyone else who knows that poem! Now I do. (I love you too.)

But I'm not clicking on that link, thankyouverymuch, because I had heard Pugh hates the poem and I don't even want to know.

Sometimes the work knows better than its maker.

(Professor Internet. Alone. In the kitchen. WIth a cat.)

Jennifer said...

Haven't we talked about that Pugh poem as well?

Also, am feeling a bit shell-shocked as I took that page's Optimism test and came out at a whopping -6, "severely hopeless." Oh dear. I would appear to be one of the dogs that never even bothered to try once, or the anti-Kirk, lol. Which is funny because I have a reputation as the worst kind of sunny, facile Pollyanna! But at a certain level I think that's a willed projection on my part, a sort of camouflage to keep people at arm's length and look less threatening. :) (Is that a pessimistic statement or what?)

Fresca said...

JEN: You alerted me Pugh wrote about fanfiction and slash--"The Democratic Genre".

Severely hopeless?
Well, sure! That's what you get for watching ALL of "Blakes 7"!
Heh.Give copies of that to anyone who thinks you're Pollyana.
(In fact, you could have back the DVDs you and Dan so kindly made for me. Not that I don't appreciate them, but they're going to waste.)