My mother has run the Boston marathon 3 times and claims the world’s problems can be worked through while out on a run. Turns out, that’s not entirely realistic. While I can come up with myriad solutions on the road or trail, I rarely feel empowered to act on them, because why bother? I’m just one person in a huge, complex, multilayered system.
For instance, right now, most of the Supreme Court is conservative, and they’ll going to become even more so. Justice Kennedy is retiring, and the Trump administration will pick a much more conservative replacement. In the coming years, this more conservative court will work toward destroying Roe v. Wade, the decision that keeps abortion legal in the U.S.
Sometimes I think about what I might do under those circumstances; I imagine volunteering for a local Planned Parenthood, or living out some pre-Handmaid’s Tale fiction where I help facilitate safe, secret abortions to those who need them. But those thoughts are far-fetched, and don’t actually address the gradual erosion of women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies.
This feeling, that resistance is futile, is a symptom of something called learned helplessness. In its most extreme form, learned helplessness means accepting pain or suffering as unavoidable—that you can’t control your situation. I’ve been feeling it quite often lately in the face of what our country’s leaders are doing, and I really, really don’t like it. It feels like a weight on my chest, or an itch that won’t go away.
So how do you combat learned helplessness? Well, it has a proposed opposite: learned optimism. In theory, learned optimism takes practice, because it involves fighting against helplessness and willfully pushing past the circumstances that make you feel helpless in the first place.
What this means is, find a way to ACT. Act often, act big, act small. The most overwhelming feeling is standing in one place while the world moves all around you, and the first step towards overcoming your learned helplessness is to make even the smallest gesture of protest. Your gesture doesn’t have to be grand—protests and yelling in the faces of politicians can be something you work up to, if you want. But if you’re feeling helpless, try this easy, almost anonymous step: vote.
It’s easy, I promise. You may need to dedicate a few moments of your day, but it doesn’t take very long. Just find out how to vote in your state—we’ve made it easy for you—and then walk, drive, bike, or hitch a ride out the door. Get there, and take a stand against what you think is wrong, or for what you think is right. Your baby steps towards overcoming learned helplessness might start here, and maybe that’s where it ends—but voting will let you make your voice heard, and you will be counted. Vote.