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life in the pause

life in the pause

by Jessica Carson jessica carson
Self Development | Personal Story

“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, Man’s Search for Meaning

This quote has made two appearances in my life. The first time was in a required reading for a Psychological Study of Spirituality course. The second time was in a Hugh Byrne’s meditation class.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, my college-self had little appreciation for this quote. In fact, I don’t even remember reading it. In theory I know I must have (yes, I was the student who poured over assigned readings), but it clearly didn’t resonate enough to stick. It’s little wonder, since college is a time characterized and defined not by our pauses, but by our reactions. 

Give me one example of a time in your life when it is more appropriate or acceptable to be highly reactionary. We have to seize the moment, jump on the bandwagon, live in the now, stick it to the man, swim upstream, blaze the trail, YOLO anyone? 

In this phase of life when impulsivity, novelty-seeking, and recklessness are at best condoned and at worst encouraged, the notion of freedom in between stimulus and response not only sounds pretty boring, but perhaps even deleterious. Look, if the fittest survive, and everyone around you has a taste for the risk, the gamble, the aggression, the high of the reaction – do you run the risk of being paralyzed by the pause? Would life in Frankl’s “space” make you a martyr?

Okay, we’re gonna get a little nerdy here. Let’s break down reaction. We all react, and we all react for the same reason. We seek to avoid pain, and if possible, experience pleasure or at least comfort. As we move up through the food chain, invertebrates respond to physical stimuli with automatic reactions. Vertebrates however respond to physical and emotional pain, and thus reactions become more complex and alterable. From a biological perspective, all creatures react to pain, but suffering, a reaction requiring an advanced emotional component, is unique to humans and higher animals.

If we can control the pause, can we not also control the suffering? Why do we pride ourselves on living in an intensely reactionary state, eschewing the importance of the “space”? At the end of the day, this makes you more like the slug than the chimpanzee. 

The “space” Frankl references shouldn’t be taken lightly – it’s an evolutionary gift painstakingly crafted from years and years and years of creatures experiencing pain. Think about that for a second. Your capacity to pause between stimulus and reaction only developed as a result of millions of years of fear and death. That’s pretty amazing. Don’t take it for granted. 

So why, after quitting a job, did this quote resonate on such a deep level? Metaphorically speaking, I am currently living in an extended, expansive example of this pause. And to be honest, all I want to do is react. I want to react because this pause, this “space,” can be downright terrifying. The stimulus is leaving a job, and right now, my reaction is ……………

Like I said, living in the pause.

A few months ago, I would have declared “SELF-CONTROL!” as the ingredient that permits the “space” between stimulus and reaction. Any project I needed to finish, difficult patient I had to work with, or additional drink I wanted to refuse could be boiled down to a practice in self-control. Now, with a newfound respect for the magnitude, depth, and potential of this “space,” I would unflinchingly assert that self-assurance, over self-control, is responsible for the graceful execution of this pause.

Self-control is self-assurance’s straight-A sister. Self-control is a rigid recipe that allows you to get the 4.0, turn down the drink, or stay at work past hours. Self-assurance provides the conditions to do all of these things, but permits you comfort, happiness, and peace in the interim (and in the event that it doesn’t work out as planned). Self-control will get you into the yoga studio every day, self-assurance will let you stand on your head.

So as I take this time to pause, to look around at the people, places, and conditions in my life, I realize that growth and freedom do stem from the space. But to be comfortable in that space, to breath, play, and touch that space, you must have the prerequisite self-assurance. And some days, it’s easier than others.

So do we run the risk of being paralyzed by the pause? Does life in Frankl’s “space” make us martyrs? While knee-jerk reactions are useful when you’re about to face plant, they’re pretty unhelpful at all other times. This isn’t to say intuition or instinct should always be exchanged for intense, deliberate thought, but a state of reactivity versus receptivity to intuition utilizes the pause in fundamentally different ways.

Frankl wasn’t an armchair psychiatrist or philosopher. As a holocaust survivor, he is part of a unique population. He could have reacted any way he wanted – with anger, violence, theft, depression – and humanity would give him a free pass (as they should) because of the direness of his circumstances. If he found a way to live in the “space,” to make the absolute most of his uniquely human potential to consider his reaction before its execution, why can’t we all?

There’s a real gem here, an ultimate life-hack if you will. If we learn to maximize that millisecond between stimulus and reaction, we can dictate how the rest of the hours of our lives play out. And isn’t that all life is, billions of infinitesimally small pauses that manifest into complete control over our growth and freedom?

I can dig it.