“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
I knew he was coming. He had called me earlier in the week and asked me if I could host him and his wife for dinner at our home. After calling the reference he gave me, I told him we’d be happy to.
He walked into the room where I was in the middle of leading a study group. He sat down at one of the empty chairs around the table. He listened for a few minutes, seemingly orienting himself.
What I didn’t realize was that he was doing far more than this. His mind was in high gear mode as he was formulating a strategy. There was no way I could have known because the expression on his face didn’t indicate this at all. He was a master of his trade. His trade was drama.
In one sweeping moment, he took the entire table with all the books on it and flipped it over. No, not literally, but figuratively. He walking into a pleasant class discussion and turned into a war zone of emotions.
He, the stranger who no one in the room knew suddenly had full control over the entire room. “What makes you think what you’re saying is true? This doesn’t make any sense at all. I wouldn’t trust these ideas at all.” He was on the offensive, doing what he did best, and the rest of us suddenly found ourselves defending.
It was the shock that a stranger would have the courage, as a stranger, to behave the way he did. It was the shock that he would attack the very fundamentals of our discussion, clearly hitting below the belt. It was the shock that caught us off guard and created exactly what he wanted to create. Turmoil, havoc, a whirlwind of drama.
You see, this was his expertise, drama. He thrived on it. He was addicted to it. He perfected it. He kept control over the environment around him through throwing it into a whirlwind of emotional turmoil and bringing everyone around him into it. If you were someone who didn’t get drawn in it wasn’t a big problem. He just upped his game. He heightened the turmoil.
I was drawn into the whirlwind. As the teacher, I felt I couldn’t let such inappropriate and offensive remarks be made without a response. He knew that. He was an expert. He had me at the start.
A terrifying thought for me was that he was coming over to my home for dinner. I was scared. This is when my good friend and psychologist pulled me aside and taught me a lesson I will never forget. He said, “When someone creates a whirlwind, make sure you remain at its periphery and don’t get drawn in.”
With this one statement, he saved the situation. When we sat down for dinner he started immediately. He made a very inappropriate comment with the attention of provoking me. Instead of being provoked, I smiled. I told him, “I actually agree with you 100%. What you just said is one of the most thoughtful and profound statements I’ve ever heard.” And I just kept on smiling.
Suddenly the tables were turned. He realized that I was being facetious, that I wasn’t being drawn into his whirlwind of drama. So he did what he does best. He upped his game. And I upped mine. In a few short moments, I dispelled one of the most menacing whirlwinds I had ever experienced.
While I wouldn’t promote using cynicism, it’s an unhealthy behavior, it’s what I pulled out of my hat at the moment and it worked. My main message is, “When someone creates a whirlwind, make sure you remain at its periphery and don’t get drawn in.”
The challenge is always how. We are so quick to jump into an emotional state and react that before we know it we are right in the middle of the turmoil. People ask me all the time, “But I get so angry. How can I not get angry?” Or “I get so scared. How can I not get scared?” Or “I get so hurt. How can I not get hurt?” As life transforming as this is, how can one learn how to stay at the periphery, calm and at peace while a whirlwind is spinning in front of them?
This is why the well-known psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl, taught this profound teaching: “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.” When we learn to slow down what’s happening and discover the space between the event that happened and our internal response, we become very powerful people.
Why powerful? Because the truly powerful person isn’t one who can control others, it is one who can control themselves. True strength is an internal phenomenon. It’s our ability to control our inner processing system.
Often we feel that we are the victim of our thoughts and feelings. In fact, we have the power to define both our thoughts and our feelings. Yes, it takes determination, strength and repeated practice. The benefits, however, are enormous, and we are the beneficiary.
An ancient Jewish teaching from Ethics of Our Fathers teaches, “Who is might? He who captures his desires.” We all have visceral reactions to different things. Reacting viscerally is weak. Strength is demonstrated when holding back from falling into old patterns of thought and feeling. We then process what we experience and decide what our perspective should be about it, how we should think about it. Only then do we develop a feeling about it.
This is power. That is your power. This is my power. You can do this and so can I. We can all do this and we must be doing this more.
All the power to you!
Aryeh Weinstein is a recognized expert in the science of Jewish spirituality. He is the host and creator of the Beginning Within podcast and the Beginning Within Master Course at beginningwithin.com. As a Rabbi, teacher and coach, he teaches the method of learning to live life from within and without having the people and circumstances around you define your emotional state.
Image courtesy of Jeremy Perkins.