The Space Between

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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.


8 Responses to “The Space Between”

  1. 1 Kent Shelton Wednesday, February 18 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing that example of the power of choice. I have always looked up to you. This is why. You are a great man and father.


  2. 2 Steve Olsen Wednesday, February 18 at 1:36 pm

    Great message, Brad. This certainly fits my work with educators. In the space between stimulus and response is the freedom to choose a response. I can choose to be irritated and annoyed at student behavior which results in a sarcastic remark, or I can choose to separate the student and the behavior and ask a question like, “Is that helping…?” which invites better behavior without damaging the relationship. I’ll use Frankl’s quote and your ideas in my training. Thanks!

  3. 3 Jo Dawn Newlon Wednesday, February 18 at 7:02 pm

    Sorry, Brad…..not knowing how the Star System works I accidently clicked on the first star intending to click on all stars so went back and clicked on the last star..does that mean you get the six stars you deserve?..old dogs-new tricks !!! the bottom line is what an outstanding “space” I think it would be awesome to take it one step further…this lesson of yours…Not only do we need to learn this ourselves and practice until it becomes habit…but why not explain it to children and young people of all ages and help them practice itso it has become a habit before they are “adults.” Then they do not have to relearn the “trick” of action rather than reaction…your “space” may be an inch wide but is indeed a mile deep….Angels deliver messages if we listen and God blesses angels…..By the way, I read Beyond Illusions AGAIN and continue to love it….thank you

  4. 4 Aubrey Barton Thursday, February 19 at 3:22 pm

    Hey dad I will take time to think about a better response instead of exploding my anger at you when you ask me to help around the house. Thanks for being such a great dad.

  5. 5 Brad Barton Thursday, February 19 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for your stars Jo Dawn.

    You’ve got the essence of it. It really is about creating a habit, developing a learned capacity to look beyond the obvious facts and in our response, create something more worthwhile.

    Thanks for you input.

  6. 6 Brad Barton Thursday, February 19 at 5:34 pm

    Yes Steve. This really is something that little kids and us big kids can learn to do.

    I’m fired up that you will sharing Frankl’s influence even further. Share his title as well. The whole book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a powerful experience.

  7. 7 Brad Barton Thursday, February 19 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you Aubrey. You really are a wonderful person in my life. You are so full of creativity, excitement for life, genuine love for others, love of the gospel, and optimism. Oh, and you are also talented and smart and dang pretty. What a privilege it is to be your father.

    I appreciate how hard you are working to become an even better young woman. Your efforts are showing and I’m proud of you for it! I look forward to being a part of your life as you grow and mature. You are going to do great things with you life. Just remember to own your “space”.

    I Love You!

    Your Dad

  8. 8 Ann-Marie Sunday, March 8 at 7:36 pm

    Thank you sooo much for this uplifting message. It is exactly what I needed right now in my life. I have read it and reread it many times and to put it into practice is my goal. God bless.

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