Viktor Fankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies all our freedom.’ In the most extreme conditions of privation imaginable, Frankl discovered that he was, remarkably, free to choose his response to any situation.
I love this quote because it sums up the essence of my philosophy. I believe it is the cornerstone of a happy and effective life. A real, experiential understanding of this radical freedom is life changing, liberating and empowering. To suddenly come upon the realization that we have always been free, not in some abstract sense, but in a real, personal and imminent way, is like being let out of prison.
We are not free to control others
The point is that we are free. And so is everyone else. That means we cannot impinge on the freedom of others. This is not some moral statement. I’m not saying we should not interfere with other people’s freedom – it is simply impossible to do so. You cannot make another person do anything. Even putting a gun to someone’s head cannot make them do anything. If someone is threatened to the extent that they fear for their life, they are likely to comply with whatever is being demanded of them, but this compliance is not a result of the threat – it is still a choice they make. If you doubt it, think about the people who have been threatened and not complied – think about people who have died for what they believe in rather than comply with an external demand.
The belief that we can control and coerce others, bending them to our will, is the cause of a great deal the misery in the world. This belief, springing from the external control psychology that we have overwhelmingly been conditioned to accept, is the cause of much of our pain. To let go of our belief that we can control others is astonishingly liberating. To accept other people as they are, to make no demands on them, simply to dance our own dance, as Anthony de Mello would have put it, and to accept that we cannot but allow everyone else to do the same, is not only the only choice that makes any sense, but is also the only way we can make any difference in the world.
We have a choice
In every situation, there is a choice. Accept that we cannot control other people or try to force, coerce, manipulate and bully to get our own way. The latter course of action damages relationships and, in the end, leads to pain and dysfunction. Or, we can accept people as they are, accept they are utterly free agents, accept that we cannot force them, and concentrate instead on building relationships with them and on building the inner world which echoes back to us as our experience. When we have good relationships, things work. Perhaps not in the way we might have expected, or even in the way we would have preferred, but things will work. The world is not ours to control, so let it go, and let it work in its own miraculous way. This is the effortlessness to which Lao Tzu alluded when he wrote, ‘The world is a mysterious instrument, not meant to be handled. Those who act on it never, I notice, succeed.’
We are responsible
We are responsible for ourselves. We make our choices and then we must live with them, not blaming others or circumstances, and not cowardly abdicating responsibility to some external forces. We are not victims! We are in control.
By the same token, we are not responsible for other people. Their fear, their anger, their pain, their misery – it’s all a choice they make, as freely as we make ours, and they need to shoulder the consequences of these choices – they are not our crosses to bear. Their happiness, their success, their joy – it’s all their doing, not ours.
So here lies our freedom – it is inside us every moment and we can recognize it and live our lives according to the truth of this freedom, or we can continue to behave in the way we have been conditioned by society and try to force our way through life, pushing and coercing others into doing our will. One way is peace and happiness, the other way is pain and madness. Being proactive is the first of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits and is the cornerstone of a truly effective life. I believe that living a proactive life, centered in the self, accepting that we can change nothing but ourselves, and choosing to focus on the good in our life and seeking to attract more it to ourselves is the purpose of our existence.
The idea that our experience is an ‘echo’ of our inner world is a theme I will explore further in another post.