The Gonzo Diplomat

Boxes and Learned Helplessness

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2011 at 1:27 am

“Everything he kept saying to me was some sort of fantasy he would conjure up on his own and spread to all those who surrounded him.” I told the man, as he lit his cigarette and fixed his glasses on his long, pointy nose. “But everything is always somewhere else; everybody was nowhere to be seen, all the thoughts, the ideas, the castles would just slip away”.

“But it was you who chose to believe him”. He quickly pointed, “And that was your own free will”.

From the window where I was staring out, the heavy rain was blurring the screen, and all that could be seen was the distorted up wavy figure of an oak tree fifteen metres in front of the window. I tried to look beyond the tree, into the city, the streets, the schoolyards with fighting kids and footballs flying in the air. I tried to rise myself above the skyscrapers, over the avenues and the financial centres, searching every lost alley for an explanation.

“Sir?” the man enquired

“Yes.” I assured him. “Yes you are right. I am perfectly aware of that.” And I was. He was not the first to point that out to me. Far from it, I couldn’t blame it all on my old man’s fantasies; he was after all, just a dreamer. An old dreamer who had taught us all to hope and never reach anything, from a young age, he had taught us that patience and faith was a virtue, that goodness was repaid and that, in time, those with devotion and conviction would reap what they deserved.

“Yet, you did not search for another alternative?” the man continued.

I took a deep sigh, and felt my temple began to beat; it was anger for the man was right, it was the normal question to ask, and I had searched for alternatives, but for some inexplicable reason, all of them had been met with closed doors, as if there was a code of conduct I had failed to understand, something I had missed out on. And every time I entered these clouds of doubt, my father’s fantasies of a greater life, of his big deal, of the people he knew who could help me out were the cushion I fell on, whilst the hard side, the wall or the floor, was composed of people who insisted that it was my mistakes, my indecisiveness, that had cast this great shadow upon me.

“I cannot get this shadow away”, I whispered. “It is too heavy”.

I felt entrapped in a teasing game, like a hamster in a maze, or a dog in a cage. I was being fed dung by everyone around me, and I was trying my best to construct something solid and worth believing in, but these ideas, these attempts and evidences, they just never hung around long enough to be served as proof later on that they even existed.

I heard somewhere that in the late sixties, two psychologists composed some experiments on dogs, driving some of the poor things nuts. These dogs, they were put into groups of three, and then different things were done to them. The first group of dogs, they were released with no harm done to them. They just strolled and ate their food and proceeded to sniff each other’s butts in joy, like some kind of Ivy League yuppies.

The second group of dogs were paired up and put on a leash, then, one from each pair was given electrical shocks that would end if the dogs sussed out hot to press a lever. Eventually, the dogs learned how to avoid the shocks, and assumed control of an else wise desperate situation.

The third dogs, however, were the suckers of the pack. They too were paired up and leashed together, but when one of the dogs received shocks, pressing the lever wouldn’t do anything to avoid further shocks from taking place. They just continued, inevitable and unjust, and with this, the dogs developed something the shrinks called “learned helplessness”. The poor mutts assumed that nothing could be done about the shocks anymore; they assumed their fate and the fact that they had little to say in the events that surrounded their environs. They developed symptoms of clinical depression. Later on, when those helpless dogs were put in a box on their own, they were given more electrical shocks, only this time they could end the shocks by simply jumping out of their boxes. Thing is, these dogs didn’t even bother anymore; they just gave up and accepted what was coming to them.

“Maybe it is some kind of learned helplessness or somewhat”, I babbled more to myself than to anyone else.

“Are you thinking you are a dog again?” the man teased sourly.

I placed my hand on the wall, only was it a wall? What was it made of? Plastic? Wood? Cardboard? Did it matter? In the end you think something is one way, but when a higher number of people tell you otherwise, you’ve got to learn to take it and accept that that thing that you are so sure is a chair is actually a Goddamn Schitzu and that is that.

I mean, maybe I hadn’t seen the buzzers, you know? They must’ve been there, and I just never saw them.

Maybe they were always there, so blatant, but I had not been able to sense them out, to pick them up, to press them and to determine a possible future, instead, I embraced a fantasy fed to me many years before.

These dogs, they kept having things changing around them, when they thought they knew how things worked, all of a sudden, they were being buzzed and shocked, and some managed to sort things out in the end, others found themselves incapable, and initial growls and winces, their frustration to what was going on around them, inevitably became a passive admittance and willingness to let the pain seep through. C’est la vie.

“Dogs don’t philosophize, they smell and lick themselves”. The man continued.

“I am not asking you for your advice right now”, I spat.

“Then why did you call me?”, he taunted, playing with the ashtray on the table.

“I didn’t”. I felt like I was growling.

“Yes you did.” The man assured smugly.

I turned back to the window, blurry, unsure and faded. What was it exactly I could see outside, was that really an oak tree I could see out there? Or was it just a weak deduction my mind had made to try and decipher the washed up smear in the frame in front of me? Everything kept changing around me, just not for the best, and I had long gone tired of chasing shadows.

On the window, there was another figure vaguely staring back at me. A weak reflection of a weaker person. His eyes were heavy, and had once burned with rage upon seeing that life and its disappointments had been shocking him, he had screamed and cursed, and vowed for change, but now they were weary, for he had been drowned by problems he had had the chance to solve, but that now he could do nothing about.

Sometimes it is all about time. Too much time, too little time. Often, you learn things too late, and when you finally try to solve a problem, you find that the problem doesn’t exist anymore, that in fact, there is a new problem and that you’re trailing yet again.

“When the EU finally began to be prepared to defend themselves from an invasion by the Soviet Union, all that defence planning was useless, the Soviet Union broke down on its own”, I lectured myself.

The man remained in silence for a while, until he slowly murmured, “So…?”

I have had opportunities and different scenarios to change them. I have had different experiments bestowed upon me. I have been a lab rat and dog, with triangles, squares, and circles shown in front of me, having to choose the right one.

I have been fed cookies when I have been right, I have been buzzed when I have been wrong. I have been shown a box and told to go for it, and when I have, I have been rewarded, only to find out further one that the box is no longer useful, it is no longer the right one.

“People are always changing, looking for something new, a new job, a new love, a new environment. Sometimes, they don’t even know what it is they want, but they chase it all the same”. I commented.

The man sat up from his slouched position. “Sir, am I supposed to understand anything you are saying?” He desperately asked.  “There is no coherency in your words.”

“There is no coherence in my world”. I added.

The boxes, my aims, the things I go for, when I finally learn to press buzzers and avoid the traps I find that the boxes are empty or out of date. Even worse, at times, you go to open a box one day, after pressing the buzzer and having done everything in your way to reap your rewards, and you feel the shock running through your veins. The currents shattering your bones, your teeth clenched, you realise that the buzzers were just a decoy and that your fate is not tied to your own actions.

The first time this happens, you are bewildered and overcome with rage. How could this be happening? I am an educated man, I hold my own destiny, and the world is full of boxes to choose from. However, as the shocks begin to kick in, and you begin to see others tremble in pain, eventually you don’t even bother warning them about the buzzers, or the lack of meaning in them. Eventually, you grab the box because you have to, you can’t just sit there and watch it in front of you. We are people, we do not sit and let years pass by, we cannot, we need to move, we need to breathe and make decisions and take them no matter what may evolve out of them. We grab the boxes. We feel the shocks.

Some boxes, you just throw them away, go to the next one, the next opportunity, the next change. The shocks however, are startlingly alike. The problems are still with a lack of solution. In anger you search quicker, with pure momentum, but sooner or later exhaustion begins to kick in.

I remember the box with her in it. Her face, the image of her sat on the grass with the shadows of the leaves on her face. She was smiling, even though she was probably grudging about the insects on the ground and how they would get tangled in her hair. I remember the feeling when I saw it, I didn’t care about buzzers, and I had to open that box. Her summer dress shimmering, her arms outspread, her eyes, blue yet warm. I ran to that box, I pressed the buzzers and passed the tests and when I opened it I felt the heavenly warmth of a task well done. I felt her embrace, I let years pass in it, and I routinely pressed the buzzer and opened that box. I got my cookies.

The day I felt the first shock whilst staring through her eyes, I couldn’t understand it. It must have been some flaw. But the currents got stronger, the pain, I tried to ignore it, I kept opening the box, getting the shocks, sizzling, frying, fizzling, sweltering, scorching, electrifying, crackling, these words coming to my head as I tried to reach the embrace. Eventually, it seemed that this old dog had reached a stage where he did not learn any longer, and they changed the box on me. One day, the box simply wasn’t there anymore.

“I don’t know what to chase to anymore”. I sighed.

“You always say that”, the man patronised, “Yet you’re always chasing rabbits”.

Indeed, we are always opening boxes, it is in our nature. We need to want, to open, to seek, to delve in frustrations when our dreams are not met, to sulk and try again.

“But I’m really tired this time. I am not even sure what I am chasing anymore. Is it that empty hole? The thing that elders chase just before they part? I’m not even sure if I want to chase anymore, or to what extent I am conditioned to my sanity”. I waited for a response but nothing came,

There are pills for everything these days, I mean, they have to have them, and people just can’t stand the boxes. They used to lobotomise them you know? The aggravated ones. Make you dumber, the dumber the better. It healed the pain and the frustration. For those who can’t find the buzzer, for those who aren’t Ivy League, you need some sedatives, or you end up hurting yourself.

“And in the end that just makes you lower than those around you. The dumb ones who have accepted their fate, they don’t cry in the end, because they no longer hurt, they don’t face disappointments or losses, they just accept any small shock that might come”. I heard footsteps outside the door.

“Doc?” I asked. I turned round to see if the man had left, he tended to do that, the miserly fiend, and I found that the chair behind me was empty and that there was a figure by the door. It was a slim and fragile lady, and I half expected to find that box I had left behind, the one with my loved one waiting for me with her arms opened. Instead it was a nurse staring, ready to reprimand.

“The doctor is ready to see you”. She assured me, before looking around the room at my hunched posture over the window, “Who on earth let you in here?” She asked politely.

I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. It was just a room with two chairs and window with a miserable view. “I suppose I let myself in, I don’t know”. Did it matter? I pondered, “And besides I have already been talking to the doctor for the last fifteen minutes or so”.

The nurse stood frozen by the door, her eyes squinting as if trying to suss me out. As if trying to decipher whether I was kidding with her or being truthful.

“The doctor has been in a meeting for the last two hours.” Her eyes still scanned me, waiting for a response.

“That can’t be”, I insisted, feeling slightly weak and confused.

“Oh it can be Mister Carr”, a voice implied from a far. Slowly, the doctors appeared by the door. His glasses perched on his coat pocket. “Now, take a seat, tell me, how are you feeling this week?”

I took two steps back and banged my back against the window. I looked at the table; there was no ash tray, the man looked at me concerned. He leaned his head towards the nurse, “same as last week, I see”, he mumbled.

With this, the room remained in silence. I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth. I saw the boxes flash before me, I saw the chances lost, the dogs whimpering, the doctor and the nurse on the doorway, the oak tree shaking outside under the rain, my father waiting for me in his paradise and my loved one’s arms begin to close.

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