A number of psychologists believe that if traumatic experiences teach us the lesson that we are helpless, this perceived lack of control can lead to depression and other mental illnesses. Seligman and Maier performed an experiment where two groups of dogs were put in harnesses and subjected to random electric shocks. Group One learned that they could end the shock by pressing a lever, while the shocks for the dogs in Group Two’s shocks were ended in a random way that was out of their control.
The dogs in Group Two—who felt helpless—exhibited symptoms similar to clinical depression. In a later experiment, the same two groups were shocked again—in a cage—and in order to escape the shocks they only had to jump over a low partition in the wall of the cage. While the dogs in Group One quickly jumped out of harm’s way, most of the dogs in Group Two—the ones trained to feel helpless—simply lay down passively and whined.
Put simply, the dogs in the second experimental situation were given a choice between life and a kind of living death. Group One chose to live pain-free, while Group Two simply COULD NOT SEE the pain-free choice, the choice to truly live. Sure, the choice to live THEORETICALLY existed for Group Two, but they had been trained not to see it, so in reality, they could not make that choice.
We human beings are not so different from dogs. From childhood on, most of us are surrounded by people—parents, teachers, other adults—who have thoroughly trained us that unconditional love is not a possibility, and we cannot truly live without that love. Without it, we wander throughout life from one coping mechanism to another—choosing one form of living death after another—unaware that the choice to live in freedom and joy is a possibility.
Every moment of every day we are presented with choices, some of which appear to be hopelessly complicated. But the truth is that life is a series of forks in the road. At each fork, we can choose freedom and life, or captivity and death. Until we are aware of the choice to live freely—and, more importantly, can FEEL the freedom and joy of receiving and giving unconditional love—we have only one choice to make. This is possibly the greatest tragedy in life.
But we can learn. We can take the hand of those who know how to stop the pain, and how to leap from the cage of death, and we can follow them as they teach us to choose freedom and life.