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Anonymous Germany (Augsburg): The Rich Man
- Scene from the
Story of Jehosophat and Barlaam (1476)

"Sometimes it seems like something entirely different."

Martin E. P. Seligmann was a graduate student when he stumbled upon his Success. He was performing experiments with dogs when he noticed that under certain conditions, the dogs seemed to become pessimists and started refusing reinforcement. He hypothesized that dogs could learn pessimism. He wondered, if dogs can learn to become pessimists could they also be taught to be optimistic, and could humans? Thus began his life's work, which so far, at age eighty, has taken him to the top of the Self Help (a genre he almost personally invented) bestseller lists and to the head of The American Psychological Society. His book, Learned Helplessness, became the basis for the now burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, and spawned a cool half dozen follow-on books which built upon that original base. Learned Helplessness includes a very clever and attractive chart which lists various tactics for countering Learned Helplessness. We've probably all been subjected to some form of these tactics.

When I was a kid, my mother's go-to tactic for countering sadness was to advise her suffering child to, "Turn that frown upside down."
Seligmann's tactics seem little different, and I came to understand that while his insight could prove useful, its utility hardly seemed as universal as it seemed upon first encounter. He insisted that the quality of one's ExplanatoryStory could determine the difference between a positive and a negative experience. The same action could produce diametrically opposed reactions, depending upon the story the actor tells him/her self about their experience. This philosophy might put a lot of pressure on the actor to invent a positive story regardless of their experience. In extreme circumstances, negative reactions might be encouraged by the actor's lack of ability to dredge up a more positive ExplanatoryStory. This philosophy places a lot of onus on the actor.

Maybe that onus belongs there, though. If the actor cannot dredge up a reasonably motivating ExplanatoryStory, maybe that's the key to understanding when to seek professional assistance to get through and beyond the blockage. A skilled counselor might possess nothing more than an empathic imagination capable of proposing alternative ExplanatoryStories. What seems tragic within one frame might well seem magic from within another, and the most skilled counsellors seem fully capable of proposing an infinite number of alternative ExplanatoryStories, under the guise of "whatever works, works."

It's probably important to note that the underlying truth of an ExplanatoryStory has little to do with its utility. If one can swallow a fictional account and it provides the expected service—i.e.: buoyed optimism about the future—it's valid. An actor might, over time, construct a fantastic facade behind which he continues performing. The edge between sanity and sociopathy might in extreme cases be challenged, but in general, whatever the story, if it motivates moving forward, it's considered healthy.

I carry more than vestiges of this philosophy within me, for it's always seemed alluring since I fancy myself a storyteller. What could be a better cure for an ailing storyteller than the prescription, physician, tell yourself a better story? The responsibility lies securely upon me to muster up the story. Like my mother taught me, when frowning, simply turn that frown upside down. The tactic carries a built-in metric. If I feel better under the influence of a story, then I've successfully overcome that latest bout of pessimism. I need not go full Chamber of Commerce on myself, and might instead find satisfaction merely buoying my optimism without amplifying it overmuch.

Success in this frame seems to become the power to induce optimism in myself. It's even allowed to leverage outside council. A therapist might assist without in any way discrediting this perspective. Whatever the source of the reinvigorating story, if the story shifts perspective toward the positive, it's considered useful and the search for it, successful. Yes, the true sociopaths among us employ this tactic to maintain self-delusion. Any at root good thing can get ruined by abuse. Questions remain within the professional ranks about just how much of Seligmann's philosophy amounts to an abuse of the concept. The clinically depressed might be impervious to the magic of ExplanatoryStory. Even the true believer can find it nigh on to impossible to successfully employ it sometimes. It's as if knowing about it disables one's ability to utilize it. Sometimes, this sort of Success lies beyond apparent access, and so leaves us at a greater disadvantage. Success isn't always just a better ExplanatoryStory. Sometimes it seems like something entirely different.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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