In the late 1950’s, a Johns Hopkins professor, the late Dr. Curt P. Richter, conducted an experiment with rats, both wild and domesticated. He compared the length of time each group swam in containers half filled with water before they died.
His findings surprised him, most of the domesticated rats swam for days while the fierce wild rats died in a very short time. He wrote, “The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness. [T]he rats are in a situation against which they have no defense…they seem literally to ‘give up.’”
Continuing to try and understand this rat “hopelessness,” he modified the experiment. Instead of standing back and observing, he intervened moments before the rats were expected to drown. After holding them out of the water for a short interval, he returned them to the water and discovered it dramatically extended the length of time the rats would swim for their lives.
“In this way, the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless.”
I’ve shared thoughts on the results of Dr. Richter’s experiments in previous writings and at the Communion Table, which offers eternal hope through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This eternal hope gives us the strength and endurance to live as we are called.
Maybe it’s the year we’ve all just had? 2020 was brutal for most of us. As I read again about these sixty year old experiments, I’m struck by a new thought, each of us has the opportunity to be the hand which reaches out and lifts up one who is drowning.
How many around us feel they are “drowning?” Overwhelmed by life and circumstances, hopelessness threatens to pull them down. This past year of quarantines and isolation, have strained many to the breaking point. And even those who might not be teetering on a break point are experiencing stressors they could never have imagined.
What can we, as individuals, do to be the hand which reaches out? How can we throw a life raft to those who are struggling to stay afloat?
Be present for others. Call, email, message, text, heck, mail a postcard! Reach out and listen without judgment to the worries and fears. Remember, we don’t have to have the answers to be present, just the compassion in action.
Be positive. Negativity is as contagious as a virus! Be the shining light in the dark seas of negativity flowing around us all.
Dr. Richter wrote, “After elimination of hopelessness, the rats do not die.”
We aren’t rats, but we are hardwired to hope. Take a few minutes from every day to bring compassion and hope to someone!
Reference: Richter, Curt P. (1957). On the phenomenon of sudden death in animals and man. Psychosom. Med., 19, 191-8.