I was once told that during the Korean War there was an extensive study done on the psychological dynamics of “breaking” a prisoner of war.
The people in charge of the study exposed the North Korean POWs to a wide range of physical and psychological dynamics. Some were promised many positive inducements and others were threatened with negative consequences. Some were isolated and others were put in over-crowded conditions. The people designing the project carefully covered the range of possibilities, then started studying the data.
To their surprise one variable above all others accounted for the largest number of POWs who broke in captivity and shared the secrets they carried: time. If they cracked, they did it around the 42nd day after being captured.
This led to an understanding of the whole dynamic of the human psyche and its response to a new variable. The short version is that most people can handle a new situation (good or bad) with a reasonable amount of equanimity for about five weeks, but the soul demands a brief respite around the sixth week.
Oh! One other variable. The larger the change, the more violent the pushback during the sixth week.
We see this in a wide variety of applications. A person is informed he has cancer. The initial reaction is, “I am going to fight this. I will not die.” The surgery goes well, treatment begins, all of the indicators are good, but for “no reason,” all of a sudden, right around the sixth week, the patient loses his hope and gives up.
Now this is not a permanent giving up. The sixth week dip is simply that. A dip. By the seventh week a person begins to dig out, and by the eighth or ninth week, they are back in the game again. And it is not an every sixth week cycle. It is the initial embracing of a new activity that hits hard.
You can see the same dynamic when something good happens. Having a passionately longed for baby is a good thing, but often the new mom is just about fed up with diapers and no sleep by the time the sixth week comes along, and she needs some adult time in the worst way.
The bride who follows her husband everywhere at first, is really, really in need of a night out with the girls, by the time the 42nd day comes around.
And the effect of the POW principle is massively amplified when you are dealing with group dynamics. Check the stats at a school district. The new activity is school starting after having the summer off. During the sixth week you will have the highest level of absenteeism among both teachers and students for the entire year, barring an epidemic at some other time.
If you think that is bad on the elementary school level, think about a university with 80,000 students and teachers all having a downer during the sixth week!
Well, if you know that you or someone around you is embracing a new activity, you can anticipate that there WILL be a let down around the sixth week. And you can decide ahead of time to either lower the expectation that week, or increase the reinforcements.
Take a death in the family for example. I watched this regularly when I was a pastor. After the funeral, there was a high level of concern for the widow. Her kids would drop by at least once a week, as would the neighbors and her friends from the church.
For awhile there, she had more company than she had had for years. However, it was a new activity for all of those people. They were willing to do it because they loved the widow, but it took a toll on their psyche which they did not take into account. Meanwhile, I ignored the widow after the funeral was over.
But I knew that nine out of ten of the people who for five weeks had been faithfully dropping by after work, once or twice a week, to see the widow, were going to skip her on the sixth week. Each one justified it as being no big deal because every time they had gone recently, someone else had just been there, so they were sure that their one week absence would not be a problem for the widow. Others would fill in the gap.
However, since all of them were thinking the same thing, and they all dropped the ball on the sixth week, the widow was left with a deep sense of abandonment during the exact time when her grief was overwhelming her.
Knowing that this dynamic was going to occur, I marked my calendar, and cleared the schedule, so I could practically live over there during the sixth week to help her through the grieving she had been putting off for five weeks.
After that dip where she did some deep grieving, and her friends had their little recess, they came back the following week, and I left, and life went on.
It is not always necessary to “win” with a big push during the sixth week. Back in the day when I ran a weekly Bible study, I knew that some of the people would not make it on the sixth week after we started, and most would not do their homework, and the ones who were there, would hardly be in the mood for a hard charging intellectual skirmish.
So I intentionally lowered the standard. Without saying anything, I would plan for little or no homework that week, and would design the class to be more casual and relational than the usual intellectual contact sport.
These are the two options – rally outside support when you are going to be down, or lower the standard ahead of time, so guilt does not incapacitate you.
Each has its place. If you are coming off drug addiction, you don’t want a relapse during that dip. Be sure you stay away from temptation and keep a lot of outside support around you.
On the other hand, if you are starting a diet, your two most likely failure points will be the third day and the sixth week. If you give yourself permission to go off the diet to a modest degree on the sixth week, you can buckle back down after the recess and get the benefit of a long-term modification in your intake. If you go off your diet without permission, guilt will overwhelm you and you will give up and not go back on it during the seventh week.
So pick your activity. You joined the gym, or started a budget, or became a soccer coach, or got a foster kid, or started a media fast, or swore off Facebook for the 18th time, or started piano lessons, or decided to eat sensibly for a change . . .
It doesn’t matter whether the new activity relates to spirit, soul or body, the more intense it is, the harder the pushback when the 42nd day comes. Plan for it. It is God’s design for you.
Now this blog is especially for you Prophets. You are so idealistic, and you start every new activity with an intensity and passion that is guaranteed to cause a hard crash in six weeks. And when you fail to execute at A++ level through the sixth week, you give up totally on your project, abandon it, and come into agreement with some very unwholesome beliefs about who you are and aren’t.
Prophets, you need to go back and renounce a lot of those “I am . . . ” statements you made about yourself after the many sixth week debacles you have inflicted upon yourself. Then embrace some new activity in a little more modest ramp up, and with a plan in place for the sixth week dip.
And wives of Prophets, please exercise supreme self-control as you read this article and utterly refrain from saying, “Uh huh!”
Those two syllables won’t help your Prophet husband at all.
Not even a little bit.
Copyright November 2010, by Arthur Burk
Airborne over Texas, westbound in turbulence