It was a somewhat inhumane series of animal experiments that researcher Martin Seligman conducted, but they did uncover some shocking insights about the human mind. He shackled the feet of several dogs to the metal grid floor of a large wire cage, then sent an electric shock into the grid. The current was not strong enough to stun the animals but sufficient to elicit lurching, urinating and yelps. The dogs tried desperately to rip free from their restraints to escape the pain, but to no avail. Another shock and the same violent reactions. And another. And another. Seligman observed with great interest that toward the end of a series of shocks, the dogs’ violent behavior subsided. By the end of the sequence, all that could be detected were slight involuntary twitches and an occasional whimper. At this point he unshackled the animals so they could move around freely in the cage. This time when he induced the current, a startling thing happened. As soon as the dogs felt the pain, they all stopped moving about and stood motionless until the shock was terminated. Another jolt but this time Seligman swung open the cage door so that the animals could escape. Strangely, the dogs didn’t budge. Though freedom was within their reach, they remained fixed in place until the pain ceased. He tried to entice them out of the cage with food and even placed "free" dogs outside the cage to model free behavior. But so long as the caged animals were experiencing the pain, they simply would not attempt to move. Seligman described this as "conditioned hopelessness."
A similar phenomenon can occur in the human animal. Stan Dawson, veteran director of Crossroads, a ministry to the homeless of Atlanta, says that he sees it every day. Hopelessness, he says, is the single greatest barrier to recovery. He can feed, clothe, counsel, and train those who come in off the street. He can befriend, encourage, challenge and pray for them. But for most, a light has gone out somewhere deep within their spirit and they cannot find within themselves the hope required to try once again to escape the pain. Caring counselors may see clearly the way out and assure them that they really can succeed if they try. But to those whose candle has gone out, these confident helpers are from an alien world.
Can the flame of hope ever be re-ignited once it has been snuffed out? Martin Seligman brings additional research to the subject. Into the cage with his "hopeless" dogs he introduced a hopeful dog – one that had not yet learned that there was no way of escape. Mingling freely in the cage, all the dogs appeared to be quite similar. Until the jolt came. The conditioned dogs immediately froze in their tracks, resigned to quietly endure the torturous treatment. But the new dog, at the first pang of pain, leaped into the air and charged around the cage, yelping at the top of his lungs. And when the experimenter cracked the cage door, the hopeful dog saw his chance and jammed his way through the opening to freedom. The other dogs, observing this "abnormal" reaction, glanced at each other as if to say "Did you see that?!" And one of them found the courage to lift a paw, and then to risk a step. Indeed he could move, he discovered. Then took another step. Another dog tried the same thing. In a few moments, all the dogs were racing out of the cage.
Seligman concluded that hope burned dim (if not out) could indeed be reignited through the process of identification. Modeling hopeful behavior from within the environment sparked motivation that free behavior modeled from the outside did not do. Somehow by entering into the painful world of hopeless animals, a hopeful animal – by sharing their pain and then finding a means of escape – gave hopeless animals the courage to try again.
The flame of hope can indeed be reignited. Stan Dawson counts on it. While he runs his feeding-clothing-counseling programs, he knows full well that it takes far more to cause hope to burst forth. It takes a human relationship – the kind that understands utter despair, that knows every game, that comprehends just how essential it is to have someone believe in you. Stan knows, as do a million twelve-step over-comers, that only one who has escaped the cage truly understands the absolute darkness of life without hope. He knows, too, that one who has made it out can spark hope like no other.
If Seligman were a street worker rather than an experimental psychologist, he would likely tell those with big hearts and naïve expectations to back away from the cage. Why torment those in pain with uninformed optimism? Why tantalize with scraps of condescending kindness those clinging desperately to their very sanity? What they need, what their very survival depends upon, is someone who will slip in beside them, sit with them long enough to experience the contagion of their despair, endure their deceptions, believe in their goodness when there is precious little evidence to support it… someone who has found a way out but knows, too, that each one must find his own way out in his own time.
Those who have experienced the rebirth of hope, those who know its life-altering freedom, know well that there is a significant difference between Seligman’s dogs and Stan Dawson’s homeless men. Both may respond to behavioral conditioning but in humans hope issues from a far deeper source than mere pleasure-pain stimuli. It is grounded in the eternal. The need to find purpose may indeed take precedence over the impulse to escape pain. That is why programs and relationships, though essential, are not sufficient. The mystery of one’s created purpose unfolds only as one opens his deepest inner-self to the One who has designed him. And that is a highly personal and unique encounter, the timing of which no human can predict.