With Thanksgiving merely a few days away and controversial topics looming high, I'm reminded of a quote by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust-survivor and renowned psychotherapist:
"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." Thinking about reaction as power rather than instinct is a bit of a game-changer. We've heard all of our lives that when we're afraid, our bodies do one of two things - fight or flight. Sure, running or flailing our fists may be our physiological responses, but they don't have to be our mental responses. We have power to do something different - like empathize, or clarify, or listen, or love. Think about it - if we choose those responses over fleeing or fighting, how is the outcome likely to be different?
The space between stimulus and response signifies breadth - if we can consciously choose our reactions, then the menu of our choices is limited only by our experiences and free will. I think that we're all likely to get along a little bit better if we keep this in mind. We're each more than what we distill into soundbites on Facebook or into stylized portrayals of ourselves. I watched an online fight go down yesterday over whether or not a conservative guy advocating for refugees was indeed really a Republican. Know what? Political parties haven't cornered the market on compassion and empathy. Those are human virtues. When we slap labels on such virtues, we risk alienating people. The stakes are simply too high to err on the side of pigeonholing. Just as we see the value in having options that are greater than fight or flight, we should also see the value in not having our responsive power conscripted by artificial labels and constructs.
The SNL skit is funny because it is a parody of current American discourse. If only Adele could save the world and make everyone get along. Based on how often Hello is played on the radio, we could name the song as a peace accord. But the reality is that every time I scroll through Facebook, click on Internet comments, or watch a news network, I read, see, and hear hatred, vitriol and ignorance. Then I get mad, and I want to fight. Stimulus meet my fist. But as each day goes by, I'm learning to check myself. I have the power to model compassion. I have the power to show love. I have the power to cultivate empathy.
The task before us is to shed the labels and occupy the virtues. Fighting and fleeing only maintain the status quo. The world is throwing a lot of crappy stimuli at us right now. Good responses are those that are thoughtful, compassionate, loving, empathetic, and kind. Those are the types of responses that propel humanity forward. Those are the types of responses that lead to clickbait headlines like "Man Helps Refugee Child and You Won't Believe What Happens Next!" What happens next has nothing to do with labels or ideologies. What happens next is people moving forward, mutually transformed. What happens next is growth and freedom.