The ‘resilient’ Rat

Images of terrorists sporting guns ran on every leading newspaper. The pages quickly filled with news of the carnage and the helpless victims. Then I read a blog post by a friend ( and ever since, I have been plagued by an image of a rat….Seligman’s rat to be precise. Some background first (am going to try and make it as non academic as possible). A leading Psychologist, Seligman came up with the idea of Learned Helplessness. Technically, it is “the phenomenon in which experience with an uncontrollable event creates passive behaviour toward a subsequent threat to well being.

Simply put, it is a condition where in a person or an animal- in the experiment in question a rat – learns to be helpless even if there was an opportunity to change things due to his or her perceived uncontrollability….just as we all are. Coming back to the rat, now one of the theorists decided to test the theory on lab rats much to the disapproval of animal activists. God alone knows how many rats have gone into building theories for varied range of issues right from weight loss to fighting cancer. Anyways, our rat was put in a sort of a box with the floor modified to pass electric shock. Initially the rats were exposed to inescapable electric shock. Later on, an escape route was introduced in the box but the rats had learnt by then to be helpless, and hence, they just stayed huddled in a corner, not even looking for an escape.

The recent blasts at Mumbai have reaffirmed our likeness to those lab rats. Shock after shock, we stay huddled in a corner waiting for it to pass: waiting for the debris to be cleaned, waiting for the political dance to reach a crescendo, waiting for the headlines to fade, and waiting for the mangled remains to be removed. And then we don’t lose time to get back into the drudgery of our everyday existence. For some the wait never ends, but even they stay huddled in a corner – helpless and passively bitter at the ‘system.’ The pattern has become so predictable and monotonous that it increases the apathy that clouds the collective conscience. A tragic attack followed by the news channels rushing to get ‘exclusive’ images, interviews, always announcing that they were the first to report the events that changed the lives of some for ever – the race for TRP’s begin. Out come our politicians, as we the lab rats, continue to watch – and the mud slinging begins. Late night talk shows focus on the ‘resilience’ of people of Mumbai – totally ignoring the fact that the reaction would be the same had the attacks been repeated time and again elsewhere. And we continue to watch. For a brief time that follows, all malls ‘beef up’ the security, and we cooperate for the first few days followed by impatience next, and then the complaining resumes forcing the private security guard to resume the customary flash of a beep across the visitors. All this happens in a span of maximum say a week if not less. And we, the rats, go back to our lives not trying to avoid or fight the shock that travels through the very grounds we walk on.

I don’t think it’s resilience that Mumbai displays. It is learned helplessness. It is the unfortunate confidence on the uncontrollability of events, faith on the utter lewd dance of power and blame game. They represent the rest of us in our belief that it is going to continue, helplessly blaming providence, destiny or God’s wish. Interesting. One nation is attacked only once resulting in a huge loss of life and bigger loss of sense of security and they go all out tightening the loose ends. They are labeled as paranoid, discriminative, prejudiced…the list is endless but the bottom line remains – not a single attack thereafter. They refused to be rats. They refused to be cornered. So does that mean, if we had reacted with full force at the first incident and not let it linger on in the form of ridiculously delayed court hearings, repeated observance of anniversaries year after year, we could have succeeded in not being labeled as the great resilient Mumbai spirit? Again, who knows? We didn’t react then and we don’t react now.

A year later there is another anniversary added. Candle march, a follow up on prime time, an article on page 5. And we go back to being rats. Will we ever shake ourselves out of this stupor? I know not, but I certainly hope that one day we will. One day we will stop being rats and look for the escape route. One day we will start believing that it is not inescapable, not uncontrollable.

The lab rat story continues: Eventually, though after a lot of work, some theorists were able to get the rats to look at the brighter side, to look for ways to fight back.  They were taught to look for that escape route and given hope in life. And so I hope and dream that some day we will wake up and shake off this dull impassive inaction and fight back. Someday, we shall be human – again.