I was a test case lab rat for perseverance

lab ratby Rebecca Wood Barrett

When I was twenty and attending the University of Victoria, I agreed to be a lab rat in the psychology department for ten dollars an hour. After the first test was finished, I learned something vital about myself. I have the will to persevere.

When we hear the word perseverance, we generally think of it in a positive light, describing someone who has carried on to complete a course of action, under difficult circumstances, past obstacles and naysayers. People who persevere get great things done. They overcome. Lately I’ve been questioning whether the drive to carry on, to finish, to succeed, is really all it’s cracked up to be.

I don’t know if perseverance is a learned trait or something I was born with. I suspect I have some kind of genetic disposition, and then life happened to reinforce the quality: I was better at long distance running races than sprints; I admire my father, a workaholic with prodigious output in many fields; I participated on the cheap end of the sport of show jumping, which meant I had to make do with badly behaved horses that no one else wanted to ride. They say when you fall off the horse you have to get back on, which I did, literally, over and over again, except for the time I broke my pelvis in two places. In the hospital my trainer said, “Too bad you didn’t get back on.” Didn’t, she said, not couldn’t.

Perhaps the shame of disappointing others, who knew more than me, enforced an abundance of perseverance. Ten years later and during the university lab rat test, I was given a pile of puzzles. There was a second lab rat in the room with me. We were told to work on the puzzles, and put each one aside as we finished them. I breezed through the first three, and I saw my fellow lab rat was doing the same. I felt confident, even though the puzzles progressively grew more difficult. I came to one that was very complicated. I couldn’t solve it. I tried many, many different methods to solve the puzzle. Meanwhile, the other lab rat was whizzing along and had a neat pile of completed puzzles, and I had solved a measly three. I had a growing and sickening sense of failure.

At the end of the test, the examiner pulled me aside. He told me that he had never seen anyone persevere for so long on one puzzle. I had spent the entire hour working on one problem, refusing to move on or give up. He then informed me that the puzzle I had been stuck on had no solution. I had mixed feelings about that, pride and anger. On the one hand, I had stuck at a single problem longer than any other lab rat. On the other hand, I had failed to recognize there was no solution. I had also failed to move on.

I desperately wanted to know, did the other rats in the experiment know the puzzle was unsolvable and sensibly move on? Or did they not know the puzzle was unsolvable, and give up so they could move on and look good by acquiring a nice big pile of solved puzzles? I never did find out the answer to my questions, but I did learn that I can be stubborn as hell.

The idea of carrying on, despite any assurance or even hint we will reach our desired outcome, is something I worry about. When do I stop re-writing my novel? When do I stop sending it out for another rejection? When do I accept that it’s not going to get published? Are there better, more productive things I could be doing with my time?

Last year, I read a memoir by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, titled Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. Marsh takes us on a tour of his career spent trying to help patients with brain tumours, strokes and other brain injuries. Perhaps his most startling admission is that after a lifetime of doing brain surgery, the most important thing he has learned is when not to cut. That to do more surgery would not help the patient, but likely kill them, or leave them in a vegetative state. This is a horrendous decision to make when the patient’s family are looking at you to try absolutely anything to prolong the life of their loved one. And so, many times brain surgeons do cut, only to deeply regret their decision.

I don’t have to make life and death decisions every day like a neurosurgeon, but I do wonder about the effort and point of persevering at times, without any assurances of success. However, the very quality of perseverance is embedded deep in my bones, and I recognize I’m trapped by my own nature, that I’m reluctant to believe that there are times when the better course of action is to give up, that there are times when perseverance is not the most admirable quality in the room.

The 2016 Whistler Writers Festival celebrates its 15 year anniversary with the theme Perseverance.