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Helplessness—a human tragedy?

Huzaima Bukhari

“Ultimately what I end up writing about is helplessness and the flipside of that, empowerment”—Joss Whedon

When a crisis hits one with no immediate solution at hand, when one is struck by a calamity with no hope of support from any quarter, when one gets entrapped in utter darkness with no ray of light, the feeling that penetrates the soul in those moments can be referred to as helplessness. The inability to conquer an oncoming predicament is what leads humans to either cry or become aggressive finding someone to lay the blame on or lose mental capacities or suffer a heart attack, stroke etc. and in very severe cases, even die. However, there are many out there who amazingly retain their calm and with a great sense of perception try to wriggle out of the problem, seeking either a solution or learning how to deal with it.

Generally, it is considered that one usually cries in response to a state of helplessness accompanied with a shade of melancholy, notwithstanding that there are tears of happiness too. For example, when someone loses a loved one, the moment is extremely sorrowful for the inconsolable bereaved, who feels utterly powerless to bring back the dead to life; the dejected mother, who despondently watches her cancer patient child’s life, slowly slipping away from his body; the labourer, who runs from pillar to post in search of work to feed his hungry family; the scholar who is unable to find a guru (mentor) to satiate his thirst for knowledge; are all victims of helplessness.

If one is to further analyze various states of helplessness, one can see it working in the case of those with millions in their pocket but unable to enjoy exotic foods because of health and allergy issues or as opposed to that where one has the capacity and health but no access to money to purchase that food. Another horrific form is the physically impaired whose mind is working normally but his physique prevents him from action or one who is physically fit but mentally challenged.

In such miserable situations, the million dollar question is: What is a person supposed to do? Cry, struggle, wait patiently leaving everything to destiny, ask for help. Yes, why not? Any of these options can be exercised. In fact, these are the natural responses that have their own significance and are closely dependent on each person’s temperament. Thus, the happy-go-lucky ones might not be adversely affected while the sensitive ones may need to vent or seek medical or spiritual assistance. Problem may arise for the extreme introverts, who despite undergoing a depressing phase refuse to either admit it or mask their feelings in a way that their true state remains hidden from the world. They keep on piling their woes, grousing within themselves and eventually pay a heavy price with faltering health or even some fatal disease. These are helplessness personified.

It is extremely important to reduce the level of stress to maintain a healthy mental balance. For this, a number of methods are employed, the chief among them is crying.

According to neuroscientist Dr. William H. Frey II, author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears and founder and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, “Crying is not only a human response to sorrow and frustration, it’s also a healthy one.”

In other words, the long held belief that only the weak and females cry does not hold the field any more. The truth is that crying at times acts like a catharsis helping to relieve mental tensions, anger and distress. Researchers have found that crying also aids in bringing down high blood pressure, which otherwise can have damaging effects for the heart and blood vessels. Besides lowering the element manganese (which, if levels are high in the body can cause anxiety and depression), tears are known to eliminate stress hormones such as cortisol that increase when a person experiences emotional disorder.

Diverting attention from the object of misery is another way to overcome the state of helplessness. So if a person endures an irreparable loss that no amount of brooding can retrieve, the best thing is to turn one’s attention towards something or someone else. No loss can be greater than that of one’s only child. Many parents have suffered and many more are destined to suffer, yet one is forced to live on but in this process would it not be wise to look for a little orphan who could benefit from the unfulfilled love of a father and mother? Rather than bearing pangs of separation, sharing one’s life with a soul rendered miserable because of his/her own helplessness can be a source of satisfaction and joy.

Indulging in say, gardening, exercising, travelling, engaging in one’s favourite hobby, social work, researching, writing, keeping a pet or just exploring the lives of people who belong to a class that is less privileged; are some activities that enable stimulation of one’s latent faculties while simultaneously bailing out negative emotions from one’s internal system. No matter how a-social one is, there can be no question about the significance of humans in anyone’s life. Presence of relatives and friends is crucial. Those who avoid human interaction giving preference to their solitude and to make matters worse, have grouchy dispositions are more prone to experiencing helplessness compared to those who are amiable, finding solace in the company of friends. The problems being faced by the latter may not simply vanish but the pain is bound to mitigate providing the opportunity to reconsider solutions. In the case of the former, distress keeps accumulating like the volcanic lava getting ready to erupt and in the process destroying everything that comes its way.

Human existence on this planet has also been and will continue to go through various phases of helplessness, like the present day corona virus attack being likened to the greatest threat since World War II. Perhaps this analogy is more suited in the European and American context as the Asians and Africans have been continuously facing catastrophes in the form of proxy wars and terrorism at the behest of Western politics. Perhaps this is some kind of retribution for those countries claiming superiority that have played havoc with the lives of the people of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Vietnam etc. Now they too have been left helpless in the face of a virus that does not seem to discriminate between a resident of the First World or the Third World and leaves the affected totally helpless. Worse is the fear of uncertainty that has gripped the peoples of this world but frankly, this is nothing in contrast to the miseries that Aleppo children had to bear on account of intrusive politics of the Western countries. Another view is that mother earth is all set to undo all the bad that her inhabitants have done in the form of destroying the natural eco-system of the planet by temporarily locking up pollution causing forces.

Despite this doomsday scenario, there is always hope that will help mankind to emerge from this calamity too. The resilient man will definitely find a way out and overpower this new ‘enemy’ because helplessness could be tragic but it is never meant to stay permanently.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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