Between Stimulus and Response

Viktor Frankl spent three years imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. His wife, his father, his mother and brother were all murdered in those same camps and yet, the enduring piece of wisdom he shared with humanity is the simple, but oft-forgotten truth that “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.”

We can go down the rabbit hole of what makes some people resilient and others not, but there is a degree of choice involved. Millions of us can make the choice to find it in ourselves to know that even in the midst of horrible, dehumanizing conditions, both life and suffering have value. These are the seeds of our resilience and people who have lived through more atrocious times than these have planted and sown these same seeds.

Certainly, there are some who biologically, neurologically cannot choose, but most us do have this life-saving capability to choose what to do with that space. We can choose to wait before we respond. To anything.

To everything.

The most recent presidential debates were a classic example of humans as pinballs. For almost 90 minutes, not an ounce of space was permitted between stimulus and response, but one moment stood out.

When Joe Biden responded to President Trump’s attack on his son, he had a variety of options. At that point in the debate none of us would have begrudged him a retort of similar attacks on the president’s progeny, but he made a different choice. He took however much space he could and simply responded by acknowledging the truth about his son’s substance use history.

I won’t pretend that I know anything about what happened inside Joe Biden at that moment. We could spend the next week imagining all of the possible motivations that found him choosing not to attack, refute or defend. It’s just as likely that he made that choice because he had been endlessly coached not to retort or attack than that he had a deeply humble and human moment. His choice may have been purely political gamesmanship, but it was still a choice.

Even if it was mere strategy, my point remains. He chose. He chose in that moment and the choice he made changed the feeling in the room and even in the homes of a world of viewers and listeners, even if only for a moment or two. He changed the temperature, the tempo.

We are all desperately in need of that kind of de-escalation. In our homes. In our schools. On our streets. In our minds and in our hearts. We have got to take the space that is just there between our response and every single stimulus.

Just. Slow. Down.

See that we each have choices, inside of us and outside of us. Let the noise die down inside and outside before we take the next step, say the next thing, post the next meme.

When we slow down, we’ll feel how bad it feels to be unkind. We’ll feel how far we are from each other and from ourselves. We will see. We will be unable to give in to despair because the richness of what’s here and what can be here between us will be too great to allow for despair.

Sri Nisrgadatta Maharaj, revered teacher of nondualism, (which, by the way, is simply the teaching of “not two” or “we are one”) suggested that “The mind creates the abyss. It’s the heart that crosses it.”

Our minds are afraid of the space. Our hearts are not.