Choose your attitude, choose your reaction
Viktor Frankl, the neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor is quoted as stating: "Between Stimulus and Action there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
If we stop and breathe for a second, we all know that statement is true. How often have you reacted to a stimulus without controlled thought? You know the score: you've been seemingly slighted in some way, offended by someone, received an injustice in some way, and you react to it. It could be the text or email that you've just received, the stranger who bumps in to you on your commute, the colleague who doesn't ask your opinion when everybody knows that you're the person to ask (don't they?). Everyone does it at some point, to some extent. We're human, not robots, and that means that we can RE-ACT to an event, which stimulates (the stimulus) the adrenal and cortisol cycles in our brains, and that re-action is the same as a re-bound or recoil.
Hmm, ok so if it's a re-action then maybe it's worth looking at another Philosopher's angle: Newton's third law, formally stated, is: "..for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.." If we think of a received stimulus as something that is acted upon us, then we can see how our response can readily be an 'equal and opposite reaction'. The reality is, without control we can often react to stimulus in a disproportionate way which is basically when people accuse us of 'over-reacting'. Our human system, with the neurological system at the core, is a tremendously complex system which is why we don't always generate an 'equal' reaction. Or is that just me? I'm sure you never over-react, right? This is what is so valuable about Frankl's insight: the recognition that this phenomena takes place for the human system and that there is actually an opportunity for us in every instance to take control. Simple, no? This is at the heart of Stoicism: choose your attitude, choose your reaction.
As anyone who has every trained to develop a new skill knows, developing control of a complex piece of kit takes practice. For us humans, there isn't much more complex than our own noggins. By the time we're adults we're a wonderfully complicated mix of DNA and environmental influences that have combined to create neurological structures, which govern how we respond to stimulus. So to gain control, we must practice. When we learn to operate complex and potentially (Definitely?) dangerous new kit, we start small; learning seemingly simple new skills can be difficult when we have to overcome a 'lifetime' of learned response.
I read today that Mahatma Gandhi was a subtle philosopher akin to the stoics, given that he subjected his views to countless and relentless criticism in order to strive for a consistent rationale in all that he did (Sorabji, R., 'Ghandi and The Stoics', The Classical Review, Oxford University Press, 2012). That made me reflect on my favourite teaching from Ghandi, which I'll paraphrase: "Master one's palate, and thereby master one's passions". Basically, control your urge to eat what you want and you will take the first step in developing self-discipline and control. Hunger and, or, the strong urge to eat your favourite food when faced with it, can be an incredibly strong stimuli to overcome. After all, hunger is linked to our survival instinct so it isn't easy to 'over-ride' and nor am I advocating that. What is important, and what links to Ghandi's statement and Frankl's observation, is the opportunity to learn how-to discern what is actually happening, and choose how we respond.
Choose your attitude, choose your reaction.
Early in my career, I was privileged to be told by a senior authority to "Choose your attitude". At the time I considered whether I could get away with inflicting bodily damage on the knob that offered me this sage advice but on further reflection I realised that he was right. We put ourselves in to situations in life, and it's up to us how we deal with what happens in those situations. "Choosing my attitude" was a critical survival mechanism that enabled me to choose my reactions. No, I don't always get it right (just ask my family or anyone who knows me) but it is a key part of how I try to live my life. It's a simple interpretation of many teachings within Stoicism. In his meditations, Marcus Aurelius asks how we can practice virtue 'in the moment' and advocates for starting each day with a mantra about the people that you will meet and how they will react to you.
Choose your attitude, choose your reaction. No one else can.