| David Gane

The choice of every moment

Last Thursday and Friday were travel days for me to places where the internet was spotty. Yet, it gave me a chance to catch up on listening to some of my favourite podcasts.

How you react

On an episode of On Being with Krista Tippet, she interviewed Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist who writes about randomness and choice.

During the conversation, he says:

If you think about all the details of what happened to you, you will find that there was a time where you had the extra cup of coffee, where if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have met Person A. When I look back in my life, I could find so many instances like that, and I had fun tracing some of them. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you.

*Emphasis mine.

The Gap

I loved this idea because it reminded me of how I talk about story.

For me, the basic nucleus of story occurs in between action and response—a hero takes an action and the world responds. Or to look at it from the reverse, the world happens to our hero and he/she must respond.

And there are many types of responses: kind and cruel, minor and excessive, positive and negative...

But in this moment between action and response, a gap opens. A tension is created that must be resolved and this is—conflict—the engine that powers story.

Between Stimulus and Response

Now, all this talk of action and response reminds me of Stephen Covey's book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he argues how we can insert ourselves into this gap.

He shares the story of Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, whose family died in the concentration camps of World War 2. While imprisoned, he became aware that choice was "the last of the human freedoms." He realized that no matter what anyone did to him, he could make the decision on how this would affect him:

Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

How will you respond?

So listening to Dr. Mlodinow discussion on these moments of response really reinforced two ideas for me:

  1. How in story we have actions take by our protagonist and antagonists and it is their responses that define who they are as characters.
  2. How all of this applies to our personal lives.

If someone asks me for money and I laugh in their face, I may be heartless, cheap, and uncaring. If I give it to them, I am now kind, open-hearted, and generous.

But what if I not only say no, but I push them down, and kick them? Now, not only am I unkind, but I've become cruel, and depending on how far I take the violence, I may be excessively so. My actions are a reflection of my character.

The Little Things

Now, for Dr. Mlodinow, these moments occur all the time:

The little thing that happens to you—other than if it’s something random like getting hit by a car—but in other ways, the little things—what they really do is they raise opportunities for you or they raise challenges. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you.

*Emphasis mine.

However, where I differ from Dr. Mlodinow is that he argues that our character doesn't occur in that moment:

Maybe the courage is who you are. And the courage isn’t that decision at that moment; the courage is that you’re the kind of person who would make that decision.

For me it seems that in these small, isolated moments that we have a choice.

Do we lean in and embrace the moment or do we back away? Are we courageous or do we fear? Are we cruel or kind?

To me, I believe that in each of these isolated acts, we are tested and are given the opportunity to change who we are. We can choose up instead of down, right instead of left, kind instead of cruel. In each isolated moment, we can redefine how we act and who we are.

It won't be easy and it won't be quick. It will take time, practice, and diligence.

But I believe it can happen.

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