Upside Down Chickens
My zen teacher told me, once, about how she and her girlfriend had gone with a vegan group to release a bunch of battery hens into a forever-home no-kill farm. The vegan group needed a bunch of volunteers to help “de-clump” the chickens. Apparently, chickens have this instinct to bundle together at night in groups to stay warm. However, the newly released chickens were used to small cages where there was only one or two other chickens to clump with.
If left to their own devices, once released into a larger group on the farm, the chickens would snuggle together to form a massive chicken clump which would cause the ones in the middle to suffocate. The vegan chicken-releasers needed volunteers to separate out the sleeping chickens so they wouldn’t suffocate each other in the night. After about a week of de-clumping the chickens every night, the chickens would eventually figure out how to do this on their own, and would learn to clump in smaller groups.
So, my zen teacher volunteered to de-clump the chickens.
It was a somewhat difficult task, because the chickens did not initially start out as asleep as would have been ideal. The chickens would gather into a big clump, and the volunteers would move them, then the chickens would run right back into the big clump again. However, slowly as the sun began to set, the chickens would start falling asleep and fewer and fewer would run back to the pile. Eventually, all the chickens were asleep, and could be separated with relative ease.
There was one particular chicken, however, that my teacher told me about that has haunted my mind. One of the chickens got up on some bar type thing, and got its toenail caught in the bar somehow. The chicken slipped off the bar, and was dangling by its toe. And, what shocked my teacher about the chicken, was that it made no noise. It made no noise, and didn’t struggle or try to free itself at all. It just lay there, dangling by its toe, until my teacher found it and set it on the ground.
And, as she reflected on the chicken, my teacher considered that perhaps its previous living conditions had been so miserable and inescapable that the chicken had just stopped trying to ever improve its situation. When it finally encountered conditions where it could have some agency, its entire life history had taught it that struggle was useless, so it didn’t even try.
This is an example of learned helplessness, a studied phenomenon of what happens to animals when they are denied agency to lessen their suffering. The classical study involves dogs, where different groups of dogs would receive electric shocks. However, one of the groups had the power to push a lever to end the shocks, and the other group did not. After being trained in this way, if you took these same groups of dogs, and put them on a electric pad where they could escape the shock by jumping over the fence, all the dogs in the “pull lever” group learned they had agency, and would escape the shock by jumping over the fence. However, all the “no lever” dogs that had been denied agency to end their suffering would lay down and cry without trying to escape. Even when the situation changed, the dogs didn’t learn that in certain circumstances they could improve their situation, and in certain circumstances they could not. What the dogs learned was, I can improve my situation or I cannot improve my situation depending on their life history.
One of the recurring questions that comes up for me, with respect to sexual boundary violations, is why didn’t I protest more? In particular, one of my earliest sexual experiences is of my boyfriend asking me, repeatedly, to have sex with him. I kept saying no, but he kept asking, and eventually I stopped saying no and lay there while he had sex with me. It was one of the most horrible sexual experiences of my life, and I have struggled for years with the question why didn’t I just punch him in the face?
Why didn’t I yell at him? Tell him to fuck off, or dump him on the spot?
And, one of the answers to that — which is weird — is that I was a very unpopular kid in middle school. I would go to school and eat lunch by myself every day, and I felt especially bad about it because I was a girl. There were some guys who ate lunch alone every day but I was the only girl in my grade who ate lunch alone. My classmates made fun of me all the time, of my hair and of what I wore. Sometimes, one of the boys would flirt with me, but it was always a joke and I knew it was a joke, because I was so unpopular it would be humiliating for any of these guys to actually “date” me (as much as you might date in 6th grade.) The girls would ask me to do weird, humiliating things (like “Emma, will you pick my wedgie?”) which I would usually just pretend like I didn’t hear.
6th grade, in particular, was especially bad and there was nothing I could do about it. I had just moved school, and didn’t have any friends to confide in about it. I couldn’t leave the situation when people were mean to me, and I wasn’t allowed to stop going to school. I just had to go in every day, and absorb people being cruel to me, and deal with it.
That psychology, I think, stayed with me for quite some time. A few years later, when my boyfriend kept asking to have sex with me, when he refused to take “no” for an answer, I just stopped trying to resist. I was so used to being put in horrible, painful social situations where there was no out I just assumed this social situation was the same way. I stopped protesting and just lay there, like an upside down chicken. And, it was horrible. It felt cold, and miserable, and it hurt my body, and it left me feeling deeply lonely in a way I had never felt before. I deeply regret it was one of my first sexual experiences, because that deep feeling of loneliness has followed me every time I’ve tried to be intimate with someone ever since.
But, I never saw anything wrong with it in particular. It was painful, but it was also just life as I understood life to be at that time. Anyway. Much later, almost 2 years ago from the present time, I wrote this piece detailing a different sexual violation (where a male friend of mine fingered me without consent when I was completely wasted.) The piece went viral, and a bunch of my friends and family read it, and they were like “you were sexually assaulted. Why did you never tell us you were sexually assaulted?”
And I was like… because it seemed normal. In a way, it was nice to get a lot of attention for something that had gone bad for me, but it was also weird because my sexual assault wasn’t that bad relative to life experiences I’d had. If I had to pick between being assaulted again or going through 6th grade again, I’d pick being sexually assaulted again. Hands down. At least that ended. At least there were resources to figure out how to recover from that. I’m still not sure how to process my middle school bullying.
We are just now starting to learn just how bad being bullied is for kids, but our culture hasn’t caught up with it. If I tell people I was bullied in middle school, they may listen sympathetically. If I tell people I was sexually assaulted, they’re like “Oh my god, are you in therapy?” There is a way that sexually related abuses are taken far more seriously than childhood bullying. However, not only do I think my personal experience of being bullied was worse, I think the experience of being bullied made my experience of being sexually assaulted worse. It gave me a kind of learned helplessness, so I didn’t take steps to protect myself in situations where boundary violations occurred. I was so used to not being able to protect myself from people being cruel to me in one situation that I applied that lesson in other contexts.
Anyway. After like, a bunch of time, and therapy, and meditation, and coming to terms with my anger on the topic… I’ve gotten to the point where I can more effectively identify my own emotions and respond to them. I’ve learned new ways of protecting myself from dangerous situations. And with this new mindset, when I look around at the world and culture, people have started to look completely insane.
I will hear friends complain about a terrible boss they have, or how they hate their job, and I’m like “why don’t you quit?” I mean, I get it if you need the money, but often these are highly qualified people, with enough money, other job prospects, and no children. I will hear people complain about their horrible partner, and I’m like “why don’t you dump them?” but they never dump them. Or, they almost never dump them anyway.
And politics! Oh my god, politics.
I don’t even know *what* to write about politics anymore, but when I absorb any kind of think-piece on the subject, a universal theme that crosses party lines is that people don’t believe they have the agency to control their own lives anymore. People don’t believe they have the power to live the lives that they want to live, they don’t believe they have the power to improve their situation, and they believe that they are controlled by larger forces that they can’t influence. And, I don’t know to what degree people are genuinely lacking in agency, but I do know if we believe it too much, then it becomes true even when it’s not. Sometimes, we really have no agency. My middle school self genuinely had no agency.
But, sometimes we do have agency, but are so harmed by the times we had none that we can’t see it. I think I had more agency than I understood when my boyfriend sexually coerced me, and I believe my life would have been better if I’d had the nerve to deliver one good punch. But, how could I have known that? How could I have understood that, based on my past?
Anyway. While I hope that most children didn’t have as horrible a middle school experience as I did, I do think most of us have some degree of helplessness forced into us from our school experiences. The base experience of schooling is one of being forced to do what other people think is important, over and over, regardless of your opinions on the matter. The base experience of schooling is one of telling children there is no escape. There are no options. You MUST obey, or face punishment.
Then, as adults, we wonder when we struggle to find meaning and agency in our lives. But, obviously, people who spend the first 20 years of their life learning to be helpless would feel this. It also explains why we, as a culture, struggle to take bullying seriously; being bullied is fairly close to the default schooling experience anyway. Children are regularly forced to be in a particular place doing things that they don’t want to be doing. Having an especially obnoxious set of peers doesn’t seem like a far leap from the initial premise. To really undo bullying, we would need to drastically change the entire structure of education, and that is a deeply threatening.
Who will do the difficult, miserable, and dangerous jobs once we stop brainwashing children into doing what they are told?
I don’t know. But, I think a lot more is at at stake than individual happiness when it comes to regaining our lost agency. I think our culture is being controlled by people who are motivated primarily by personal power, and this is tolerated by the population because people don’t think they have any other choices. But, maybe there are other choices, and we’re just not seeing them yet? How can we start setting our chickens upright again? How do we, as adults, learn to find all the things we lost as children?