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Years ago, I chased the dream of making the US Olympic Track & Field team in the 3000 meter steeplechase. One warm April evening in Southern California, the night before an important race, I was reading a book that a favorite college professor had recommended – Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.
My eyes fell upon a single paragraph that was so compelling, so astounding, so memorable that it has profoundly influenced the rest of my life. That paragraph conveyed a profound idea.
“Between Stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our responselies our growth and our happiness.”
I was overwhelmed by that idea. It meant that I was not bound by my upbringing, my current habits or my future circumstances. It meant that I always have the power of choice – no matter what.
I was alone, in a hotel room, but I wanted to find someone to share it with. I reflected on it again and again, bathing in the joyful freedom of it. The more I pondered over it, the more I realized that I could choose responses that would even affect the stimulus itself. I could become a causative force of nature in my own right.
My commitment to live in alignment with this powerful principle has been challenged many times – especially last week.
My 16-year-old son Jacob is a cross-country state champion. I was running a difficult 1000 meter repeat workout with him. The kid is fast! It was all I could do to run every other interval with him. I struggled at the edge of my pain threshold. I was running much faster than my fitness level should permit.
Near the end of the second to last interval, I noticed that Jacob’s running form was beginning to suffer. In his fatigue, he was forcing it, tightening up, over striding. Through gasping breaths, I reminded him, “stay loose – don’t muscle it – use your arms more – shorten your stride.” In the midst of my wise admonitions, he growled, “Will you just shut up?”
My first inclination was to react in anger. Here I was busting my hump – risking heart attack – trying to help my ungrateful son through a very difficult and important workout. How could he show such disrespect and ingratitude!
I felt like dropping back and walking off. Then I remembered my freedom to choose and resolved to lengthen the space between his stimulus – and my response.
Instead of lashing back at my son, or walking off leaving him to struggle on alone, I continued to run with him, offering an occasional cheerful encouragement.
200 meters later he said, “Sorry Dad.” During the 90 second rest before the start of our last interval, he tried to explain his reaction. I put my arm around him. “No worries, bro. We’ll work together and finish strong.”
After the workout, Jacob was still contrite. He again apologized for his retort and asked for my ideas about handling fatigue as he runs deeper into his workouts. On our cool-down, we had a great discussion – not only about the biomechanics of efficient running, but also how we have power to call the shots in our running and how we run our lives. Because I chose to act constructively instead of reacting destructively, the warmth and closeness of our relationship was restored and even strengthened.
It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and say things we will regret. What we need is a pause button. And we have one. A wonderful little mechanism located somewhere near the heart. It helps us pause between what happens to us and our reaction to it – and gives us time to choose a better response.
Therein lies our freedom and our happiness.