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The Surprising Reason Americans Might Feel Helpless and Depressed

Bureaucratic headaches only add to helplessness, one of the most destructive emotions.

Photo Credit: Ljupco Smokovski /


We are a nation on hold. We wait endlessly for everything. Some of us are forced to wait in physical lines, but increasingly these queues are electronic or digital. We can’t get answers to our questions or obtain help with important problems from the huge corporate entities that sell us insurance, mortgages, medications, airline tickets, computer hardware and software, phone and cable service, and even direct medical care. The toxic result of this increasingly intolerable system of phone queues, Muzak, and long waits is helplessness. But like the frog that doesn’t know it’s being cooked because the temperature of the water rises slowly, these particular feelings of helplessness have become so ubiquitous that they seem normal. Waiting just seems like the way the world is and the way it’s supposed to be.

Helplessness is the most destructive of human emotions. Human beings respond to helplessness with depression or, more commonly, rage. The Tea Party exploits these feelings of helplessness by tapping into this rage — blaming government and scapegoating liberals and the poor. Their narrative suggests that everyone but them gets help. Rather than receive support and respect, they feel that they get the cold shoulder or are pushed around. They have to wait in line and their place always seems to be in the back.

This narrative may be wrong and mean-spirited, but the helplessness from which it stems is real. Our lives are shot through with things we can’t control, from job opportunities, workplaces, health care, schools, to politicians beholden to special interests.

But while we fight against the causes of these major forms of alienation, let’s not forget those small but ubiquitous instances that riddle our lives and contribute to a culture of helplessness; namely, the various ways that we all have to wait, endlessly wait, to get information and help from those institutions upon which we’re dependent. Waiting, often on the phone, drives most of us crazy. Such experiences don’t get featured in the New York Times, but they nourish the soil of powerlessness and rejection in which right wing ideologies can grow.

However much we consciously accept our helplessness, this feeling breeds an underlying frustration which results in either depressive resignation or anger. To be sure, these are intensely personal reactions, and their malignancy varies greatly depending on personality type and degree of exposure. But all of us feel them. And they both mirror and amplify all the other ways that we’re unable to exercise any real control over our lives.

Having accepted the helplessness attendant on waiting in phone queues as a natural part of modern life, our frustrations may temporarily focus on one or another company or institution (“I hate ... X”) but, because of our dependence, we ultimately resign ourselves to the indifference of bureaucracies that make us wait. We often take our frustrations out on the lowest level of clerk, technician, customer support rep, or agent, but don’t ever form a clear picture of the real culprits above them in the corporate food chain. Americans don’t tend to blame the CEOs, Boards of Directors, shareholders, and upper management responsible for allocating their resources to maximize returns on investment rather than take care of their clients. These people — the real culprits — are relatively anonymous and become part of what we accept as the inexorable forces of the market over which we have no control. There’s no “there” there.

Since people are also frustrated by public institutions, politicians become the obvious targets. We can see them. We can, therefore, love or hate them, real people with real names and faces. They have become the most visible targets of our frustrations and from the poison that flows from our helplessness.