My current read is a book written by Dr Edith Eger (a holocaust survivor) titled “The Choice”. It is a remarkable book about the power of human spirit in the face of unimaginable loss and trauma. Reading the book has been one of the most difficult experience for me and in the words of Oprah, “I’ll be forever changed by her story.”
In a chapter of the book discussing trauma and its aftermath, Dr Eger references Martin Seligman’s famous experiment on dogs which gave rise to the concept of learned helplessness.
What is learned helplessness?
Seligman’s experiment was unfortunately based on giving electric shocks to dogs. In his research, he found that dogs who were given a way to stop painful shocks in an initial experiment were able to figure out a way to escape the shocks in subsequent experiments by leaping over a small barrier. In contrast, dogs who hadn’t been given a means to stop the pain in the initial experiment, when put in a kennel cage and administered painful shocks, ignored the route to escape and just lay down in the kennel and whimpered.
Their prior experience had conditioned them to believe they had no control over the shocks. Consequently they did not try to escape. Seligman coined the phrase ‘learned helplessness’ to describe this state.
As I was making my notes the thought occurred to me that learned helplessness can be applied not just to individuals but to nations and communities as well. I thought about the state of trauma that we are collectively living in. Witnessing horror after horror and feeling powerless in most cases to do anything to stop it or make a difference. Is it possible for a collective group to slip into a state of learned helplessness? I would argue yes.
It’s easy for us to develop learned helplessness or cynicism in a world that is constantly embroiled with conflict. We can start to question the effectiveness of the actions at our disposal and things like attending a protest or writing an article might seem pointless.
But today I also thought about the story of Musa and how Allah swt instructs him in the Quran to go and speak to Firawn-
“Go to Pharaoh. Indeed, he has transgressed. [Moses] said, “My Lord, expand for me my breast [with assurance], and ease for me my task. And untie the knot from my tongue. That they may understand my speech. And appoint for me a minister from my family – Aaron, my brother. Increase through him my strength, and let him share my task, that we may exalt You much, and remember You much. Indeed, You are of us ever Seeing.”Surah Ta Ha, Ayah 24 – 35
I love these ayahs so much! What it teaches us about courage, reliance on Allah and seeking help and strength. Musa was commanded to speak in front of a genocidal oppressor but imagine what the naysayers of his time would have said then, “What is the point?” “How is this going to make any difference?” “You’re just wasting time?”
But Musa obeyed Allah, did his part (even in the face of fear) and Allah took care of the rest. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this – sometimes a simple thing as attending a protest may seem too simplistic and futile but we have to remember ultimate justice and power belongs to Allah. Our job is to do our part and use whatever is in our disposal to speak up against oppression. To answer my headline, protests are not a waste of time. Whatever it is that you can do to make a difference (whether it is organising a protest, attending one, raising money for charity, making dua) don’t underestimate it.
I want to say thank you to the organisers of @kashmirstudentaction who worked tirelessly to organise a protest on behalf of Kashmiris last week. May Allah swt strengthen you all like he did Musa (peace be upon him), Ameen.