“Learned Helplessness” and Laura

[Note from the Claim Shanty: I was out of touch for the past couple of days and thought I’d set my post to upload automatically. Negative. So I’m rejiggering the dates here a bit.]

Today I thought of Laura in, of all places, Subway.

I’m not a fast-food devotee in general. I grew up in an environment where the occasional Friday-night McDonald’s takeout for all seven of us kids was cause for celebration. (This was even before Happy Meals.) I didn’t eat fast food that often; when I did it was usually a Special Occasion. My consumption peaked in high school and early college. Then as I slid into my twenties, I don’t know if it was age or declining food quality — I suspect a combination of both — but my body started disagreeing with anything you could procure from a drive-thru. (Except for McLobster sandwiches from McDonald’s. I don’t know if they’re still sold during New England summers, but they were when I left Boston eight years ago. They were fabulous.) I declared a moratorium on fast food.

Moving to Kansas actually helped in that regard. The nearest McDonald’s is 40 minutes away. Burger King, Dairy Queen, and Taco Bell, 90 minutes. My kids, three and almost six, still only know McDonald’s as “the place with the playground.” But also only 40 minutes away is a Subway. As fast-ish food goes, it’s not that bad. With the kids’ activities the way they’ve been for the past few months, we’ve partaken of the way of the sub quite often.

Today, I wanted a kid-size tuna sandwich. On wheat. With pickles. Just to tide me over till dinner. I was running errands, and the first time I stopped in, the line was out the door. I didn’t want the tuna that bad, so I left. But I was just this side of starving, so on my way out of town, I tried again. Only one guy in line. Score!

I waited patiently behind him while he directed his meat and bread choice. Roast beef. White, foot-long. American cheese. The guy behind the counter began to slide the sandwich over to another worker. We’ll call her Condiment Girl. As Condiment Girl stood poised to add whatever veggies and sauce were requested, the customer laughed slightly. “I have four more foot-longs after this one,” he said. “We have time.”

With Condiment Girl having nothing on which to add condiments, and four foot-long orders now in front of me, I sidestepped. I asked her: “Do you think you could make my sandwich while you’re waiting for him? It’s just a small tuna–”

That’s as far as I got. A third worker — let’s call him Register Guy — stepped forward and said “She can’t do that. She doesn’t know how.” My disbelief must have been tattooed on my face because he clarified: “That’s not her job. She doesn’t know how to make sandwiches.”

Squashing down the obvious response (was this not a sandwich shop?), I said only, with an index finger toward the customer in front of me: “He’s got four sandwiches. Do I really have to …?” I trailed off politely, not thinking it necessary to actually finish that thought. He was clearly in some position of authority, must understand efficiency and pleasing the customer. He’d see the ludicrousness of his thinking. Wouldn’t he?

He would not. He would instead cross his arms in front of his chest, unmoving. And I would turn around and walk right out the door, tunaless.

As I backed out of my parking spot, I thought about a project a friend had been working on for her master’s degree. The topic was “learned helplessness,” about how as more and more jobs — and thus people — became “specialized,” we essentially became more helpless. We can’t fend fully for ourselves, nor can we depend on ourselves. I felt like I could have delivered this scene to her on a platter. Or at least in a Subway bag.

That’s one thing about living here. People who live rurally know stuff. They fix. They build. In some cases they even invent. Most of the time the trip to town — or these days, to Wal-Mart or Home Depot — isn’t worth it. They know how to make do with what they have, and then some.

Just like Laura. And all the Ingallses. Out of kerosene? Make a button lamp. No apples? Try some green pumpkin pie. Want to play checkers? Burn alternate squares into a board.

What would these people have done back then?


5 Responses to “Learned Helplessness” and Laura

  1. sgaissert says:

    Sandra, what an excellent post! My husband and I often talk about the many examples of learned helplessness we see around us. Here in our little suburban neighborhood, Steve (my husband) stands out for his lack of it! He’s just about the only guy on the block who fixes his own car and fertilizes his own grass (non-toxically, of course). He can do electrical wiring and lots of other things that our neighbors pay people to do.

    This wasn’t supposed to be about my husband, but I got carried away. Back to the point: I loved your post.

  2. Jonni says:

    I always had a sneaking suspicion that the condiment people didn’t know how to make sandwiches. 😉

  3. Isabel Ganz says:

    There’s an interesting article on this subject that appeared in a Buffalo, NY newspaper a few days ago that asks if we’re raising a nation of wimps. I hope it’s still available. This is the link:


    It looks like you’ll have to cut and paste into your browser.

  4. Connie in Colorado says:

    I have had the same experience at Subway, but still like their food fare. Isn’t it amazing how we are just one generation away from ‘national learned helplessness’? Laura said one of the reasons she wrote the LH books was to help the children know where the country had come from (and through) in similar Depression Eras.

    I used to sew my own clothes and make so much more food from scratch in my younger years. Since I just retired this year, I am finding time again to do so. Just yesterday I took a class to make a quilt totebag – and found out just how rusty my sewing skills have become! (Not to mention my 36 year old Singer sewing machine was the oldest machine in the room!) I laughed ,though, remembering the joy that Caroline Ingalls had when Pa gave her a new treadle sewing machine. We must keep passing along the work of our hands or we will be in a state of helplessness soon.

  5. Erica Randall says:

    it’s amazing to look at the differance of poeple today compared to Laura’s time!!! it sad to think about how many poeple are like that lady in the shop…. Alot of other girls i know my age have never been on farms, they can’t even stand to get there shoes dirty. Fun for Laura was spending time with her family, now-days fun is video games, TV… So many have lost finding joy in simple things of life-the things that really matter…


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