Last week, the founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, testified before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. He was called forth by the federal government in response to a scandal where his flagship social media platform was implicated in providing information that belonged to 87 million people to the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, without their knowledge. Zuckerberg addressed a number of important issues during his exchange with the senators, asserting that he didn’t believe that Facebook had a monopoly over its competitors and, further, that Facebook is taking steps to safeguard private information and prevent foreign actors from interfering with United States elections.
The predicaments that we find ourselves in are obviously not on the same level as the Cambridge Analytica scandal that Zuckerberg became ensnared in, because most of us are not CEOs of venerated social media companies with a large share of the marketplace. Yet such predicaments, whether having to take responsibility for your mistakes or justifying a decision you’ve made that no one else agrees with, can be interpreted as equally threatening to our sanity if we believe that we cannot “put on a good show,” so to speak. In other words, the stress response is a function of our perceived limited capacity to act promptly in the face of adversity, despite that we are already equipped with the emotional resources necessary to push through the adversity and come out the other end of it intact.
When I was enrolled in my second to last Spanish course, I was accused by my professor of plagiarizing a routine homework assignment. He had no qualms with giving me a big fat ‘0’ on the assignment, and called me into his office to ask about why the 10 sentences I wrote were so advanced for my skill level. I told him that I consulted with my father, who was once fluent in Spanish, to add another layer of complexity to the sentences, mostly for convenience purposes but also for guaranteeing that I would receive a 10/10 on the assignment. My professor explained to me that this was a serious offense and that, only this time, would he let me off on a warning. However, he would have to report me to the Office of Academic Conduct. It didn’t help that I soon came down with an aggressive sinus infection, and was rendered indisposed for the next week.
Knowing how averted by conflict I am, I hoped that my professor would miraculously neglect to report me, and that the whole thing would resolve itself without any effort needed on my part. But during the plateau of my sinus infection, I received a phone call from a grouchy old woman who said, “Is this Marc McElligott? You know you were supposed to be here today. You had an appointment scheduled in regards to a complaint filed by your professor.”
I swallowed an Ibuprofen pill to bring down my fever and drove to the Office of Academic Conduct, where I explained to the administrator that I didn’t know that what I was doing was wrong and that I was cognizant of the ramifications of plagiarism. After tactfully sharing my side of the story, I was given a light punishment — all I had to do was take a short course on plagiarism identification and show proof that I passed the exam.
Prior to my professor’s accusations, I believed I would cave under the pressure if I suspected that there was the slightest possibility that my college career could be at stake and that, if I ever needed to consult with the Office of Academic Conduct in the unlikely event that I violated my school’s policy on plagiarism, a sinus infection would put me at an acute disadvantage. Thus, in telling that story, the point I wanted to strike is that even when it feels like you cannot solve a problem that is causing you stress, and when it is a deciding factor in your dignity, you’ll need to confront it at one point or another regardless of whether your learned helplessness has compromised your approach to problem-solving.
You can beat your stress, so long as you accept the problem for what it is rather than close your eyes and wish it would go away, struggling against it until it devours your soul.