Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. —Viktor Frankl
Life is full of difficult realities that we have little to no control over. In 2020, examples of challenging life circumstances seem endless. We continue to be in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brings ongoing physical, emotional, financial, and logistical complications (1). In the United States, we are living in a very heated political and sociocultural environment that is causing considerable stress for many Americans (2). Heavy conversations about systemic racism and organized protests fighting oppression abound (3). Parenting and family dynamics are shifting as many people are working from home and trying to function with distance education, limited social interaction, and little personal space (4). These are in addition to other “normative” personal challenges people will experience over the course of life, such as relationship struggles, life cycle realities, and trying to understand ourselves. For most of us, 2020 is unprecedented in the number and gravity of difficult external realities to navigate. It certainly was for me.
When confronted with difficult external realities and crises, it is easy to feel powerless. To feel abused and victimized. To focus on how unfair and flawed life can be. To allow the external difficulties to burrow into our internal perceptions in ways that lead to mental and emotional struggles. Yet, the outside world does not dictate our response to it. In fact, the only thing we have control over is our response to difficult life realities—and how we choose to respond will dramatically determine the course and quality of our lived experience.
Consider your own experience in 2020. There are myriad realities that probably affected you personally in meaningful ways. As you live amidst these experiences, you are presented with a choice: How are you going to respond? For example, how do you think about yourself and others because of these realities? How do you act? What do you focus on and where do you put your energy? Does your response lead to your own empowerment—or do damage to you or those around you?
In times of difficulty, it is very easy for humans to get stuck in the shadow characteristics of our Egos—the rational part of ourselves that wants the world to be fair, self-serving, and make sense to us from an intellectual perspective. Yet, left unchecked, the Ego can lead us into dangerous psychological space because we will want to justify our protective, self-centered reactions using a host of self-deceptive strategies (5). For example, we may rationalize why we should feel justified in feeling or acting a certain way. We may unintentionally cause harm to others by projecting our emotional reactions onto them. We may become mired in self-indulgent pity and deep resentments towards others. Yet, where does that leave us? It leaves us with justifications about why we are entitled to be resentful, bitter, vengeful, angry, depressed, and anxious and allowed to punish others in the face of difficulty. Responding to adversity from a place of judgmentalism, resentment, entitlement, and blame will lead to harming ourselves and those around us. It represents the worst of humanity—the darkest aspects of ourselves as humans.
On the other hand, challenging experiences also offer us the opportunity to respond from the highest level of humanity. For what separates us from most animals is our capacity for rational thought. To overcome our instincts, impulses, and desires by making deliberate choices about who we want to be, how we want to act, and what we value in life. As such, difficult experiences offer us an opportunity to become our best selves by striving for the highest level of human development. That journey requires that we overcome the animalistic, self-centered parts of our nature by making choices from a place of goodness and care for the wellbeing of ourselves and others. Specifically, choosing to overcome the shadow aspects of our Egos (i.e., blame, resentment, entitlement) by embracing our capacity for forgiveness, gratitude, endurance, compassion, and understanding (6). Responding to adversity in ways that serve the greatest good without allowing our Ego to get mired in self-deceptive rhetoric benefits us and everyone around us.
The Naked Truth is This:
2020 presented us with a host of difficult realities that we could not control. Yet, we do have complete control over our response to them. Choose to respond to adversity with forgiveness, compassion, understanding, and care for yourself and those around you. It is key to our own mental health and the well-being of those around us.