“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space”. The truth is, many people don’t even notice that there is a space between stimulus and response. In fact, that space may be so miniscule, we simply react to a stimulus rather than respond. But the space is there, and there are things we can do to expand it.
Viktor Frankl was well acquainted with looking for freedom in the tiniest of cracks; he survived the Nazi death camps. He lived through a situation in which the Nazis tried to strip every shred of dignity, freedom, and humanity away from him and his fellow prisoners.
A neurologist and a psychiatrist, Frankl knew that a person’s inner life was one locus of freedom that could be protected from such brutal attacks. He saw how his fellow prisoners would urge themselves onwards by clinging to the thought of a loved one, or by holding tight to something that gave their life meaning.
In our ordinary lives, we have the great fortune never to even imagine some of the things Viktor Frankl lived through. But what his makes his master work, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a classic is that his insights into people apply in ordinary as well as extraordinary situations. With the eyes of an expert on human behaviour, he witnessed some of the most vile things of which human beings are capable; he also witnessed some of the greatest heights of human resilience in response. Most of us, mercifully, never visit those extremes. But if you want to know how to live your life more fully, turn to Viktor Frankl.
So, what of this space between stimulus and response? Can we expand it? Can we move in to that space, maybe put our feet up for a while? Can we even find that space at all? Each of us knows very well that when presented with certain provocations, our ability to think rationally flies out the window. It might be an argument with a spouse where the wrong button gets pushed. It might be a situation at work that makes us feel as small as a bug, with none of a bug’s grace.
The signs of this kind of response are unmistakable, but good luck to you putting a stop to them once the train is out of the station. The amygdala has taken over: lizard brain is driving, and our more rational side is left standing on the station platform, wondering “what just happened”?
While it’s true that it’s very tricky to get your rational brain back on board the express train to Meltdown City, there are things we can do to find the “space” Viktor Frankl describes. Frankl, a leader in Existential psychoanalysis, would have told you that going through therapy can lead to significant shifts in your consciousness. Spiritual and meditative practices have been used for centuries to build this capacity for spacious response. As we begin to relate to our own thoughts in a different way, maybe as more of a neutral observer, we might find ourselves faced with a trigger and notice our reaction time is no so fast. And of course, the things that make us feel safe and at home in the world can help expand this space: feeling secure, feeling loved for who we are.
Freedom can be found in many places. But being able to access one’s inner freedom is invaluable; no one can ever take it away. Our inner lives, our thoughts and feelings, the way we respond to threat: all of these are uniquely our own. And, if need be, they can be changed. If you long for more inner freedom than you have, know that you’re not alone. Many good people have been down that path, and we’re all capable of transformation.