by Dr. Donna Roberts
Just after our family moved to Europe, our sweet cat Muffy passed away. We were all devastated, especially her sister Squeakers. That’s how we found ourselves at a local home for wayward animals, adopting a kitten. “To keep Squeakers company,” we said, fooling no one.
We arrived with my multi-lingual mother-in-law Denise in tow to help interpret, and we met four adorable, orphaned kittens clearly meant for us. Unable to pick just one, we brought them all home, to Squeaker’s abject horror. Within hours everyone had cozied in, save Squeakers, protesting adamantly from her hiding spot under the couch.
Intent on helping further, we donated cases of food to the overwhelmed center and, in the process, met the center’s latest arrivals. Lots of frisky animals ran up asking for our attention.
Denise was focused on something else, but we were too distracted to notice.
I should mention here that Denise is legally blind. One eye is barely usable since a botched cataract operation, while the other blacked out after a stroke. All of which has left her depressed. Tilting her head this way and that, she manages some meager vision. And as we made the food delivery, she was intently focused on the grubby, orange ball of fur huddling in the corner.
Experiments have shown that when repeatedly subjected to situations beyond their control, animals fairly quickly adapted to the adverse conditions and subsequently failed to even attempt to escape the negative situations.
Asking what it was she was seeing, Denise learned it was a new arrival, a gravely ill kitten with wounds in both eyes. The director explained the kitten was an injured sibling of the same litter we had taken home found cowering nearby. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Our gang of four had another sister—and one who needed immediate care. Needless to say, we grabbed the blind, sick kitten and raced her to a veterinary clinic.
There we learned that her injuries were grave and her life was in danger. If she managed to live through the trauma, said the vet, the kitten might retain some vision. They cautioned us because the kitten seemed to have already given up. And so we began a series of treatments and operations we hoped would regenerate the health and sight of a very sick kitty.
Months passed . . .
We call her 3P. Piccola Peste Preziosa in Italian, which translates to Petite Precious Pest. She is a scamp and has more guts than the rest of her siblings combined. She adores Squeakers, who loves her dearly, all the while pretending not to. She is healthy and happy, recovering total vision in one eye and partial in the other. Her once grubby, malnourished self is now a blaze of beautiful, dappled cinnamon. And, what’s more, she has given Denise a reason to live, and shown Squeakers how to love again, teaching by example how to dance with courage and dignity despite the odds.
Psych Pstuff’s Summary
Learned Helplessness is a powerful psychological concept first observed in animals and later applied to human behavior. Experiments have shown that when repeatedly subjected to situations beyond their control, animals fairly quickly adapted to the adverse conditions and subsequently failed to even attempt to escape the negative situations.
In a nutshell, it explains how we get stuck, how we fall into defining ourselves by our least common denominator, how we let temporary limitations become permanent handicaps, how we fail to believe in ourselves above all. It explains why we don’t try, try again when at first we don’t succeed. Just as its name implies, we learn that we are helpless to control our fate and thus we stop acting in our own best interests, becoming victims of our own self-limiting thoughts. That is, until we find a way out of that dark tunnel. Until we find hope.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, authored Man’s Search for Meaning, which, in its original form translates more exactly to Nevertheless, Say Yes to Life. In these memoirs, he explored the importance of finding meaning in life despite external circumstances, no matter how brutal. Frankl insists, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This lesson came to us in the form of a scruffy ball of fur, who said yes to life and in turn enriched all of ours.