When I was a missionary in the Russian Far East a little over ten years ago, I spent time with abandoned babies in one of the city’s hospitals once or twice a week. Having studied psychology and childhood development, I knew on an intellectual level how important it was for children to receive stimulation, physical touch, and nurturing in the first few years of life. And on an emotional level, being a young woman with a very strong maternal instinct, I yearned with all my heart to love those babies into wholeness.
I soon realized how difficult this would be. It wasn’t hard to love the babies, but it was hard to witness the conditions they lived in–left mostly to themselves except for occasional changings and feedings, placed in cribs with rubber pads, no sheets, and wearing only a baby’s one piece outfit, no diapers, so that they spent most of their time sitting or laying in their own waste. It was also very difficult to realize that the handful of hours I spent loving on those babies was not anywhere near enough. In fact, I’m afraid it only left them wanting more.
The ladies who worked in that ward often did not like it when I and my interpreter came, because when we left, the babies cried. You see, for these babies, crying was not the norm. They had learned, after crying for hours with no response, that it would get them nowhere. So they became silent. Being held and played with rekindled that desire in them, and they’d begin to cry again–until they relearned the lesson that crying was futile.
This was one of the saddest things I’ve ever encountered in my life–for babies, at such a young age, to have already given up their voice. For a while, I struggled with myself over whether my going there did more harm than good. Was it really better for the babies to experience some love and attention, if it was only going to make them aware of what they were missing? Or was it better to let them just lie there in their cribs, content?
After a lot of contemplation and soul-searching, I realized that when they lied in their cribs quietly, not crying or making a fuss, that didn’t mean that they were content. It meant they’d become complacent, having learned that, whether they cried or not, they weren’t going to be held and loved.
Merriam-Webster defines complacency as “a feeling of being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better”. These babies were actually being taught–whether intentionally or not–to be complacent. They were being taught, quite literally, really, to give up their voice. To be silent. To stop asking or expecting anything from anyone.
It’s like the concept of learned helplessness in psychology (which, from my own personal observations, seemed to be a big problem in general in Russia). They’d learned that their efforts didn’t help them, didn’t make any kind of difference, so they’d given up trying. They’d given up hope. And, to make life bearable, they accepted what they’d been given as if it were an unchangeable, inescapable fate. And it would be inescapable if they never learned how to hope.
This is what I wrote in my journal at the time:
“Sometimes hope seems cruel. Especially when it’s met by disappointment. And desire, often, can be so painful, almost unbearable. But without those driving forces, there’s nothing to move you forward. There’s no reason even to try. And when you deal with the pain and anxiety of hope and desire by killing the hope and desire–as I’ve so often done in my own life–then you’re dooming yourself to failure. You can lull yourself into a state of complacency that makes your life seem more bearable, but you’ll never truly be happy. And imagine your horror and despair at the end of your life when you realize what could have been!
“I really believe that, even if it hurts the babies for a while, even if it makes the emptiness seem more acute, it’s better for them to get a sense, a knowing, a desire for what they should have. That’s so much better than falling into complacency and never getting out of it again. It’s better than accepting a life without love and just resigning themselves forever to that fate.”
What are your thoughts on the subject? Have you ever given up hope because it seemed safer to you? Do you think it’s cruel to give people in “hopeless” situations a dose of hope? Or is it a necessary pain?