Last year, within a matter of months, the landscape of our everyday lives changed. Roles shifted, pivoted and reversed. What seemed like a relatively predictable and stable future turned out to be an illusion. Many things happened in 2020 that we simply couldn’t control — the loss of jobs and businesses, quarantine and isolation, illness and even death. When we don’t have control of something it can often invoke anxiety. Anxiety can lead to frustration, anger and even depression. This new reality has thrust us all out of our collective comfort zones, and to many, this does not feel like a safe space.
We might not be able to control what’s happening in the world around us, however, we do have a choice in how we respond to situations that arise within our immediate lives. The most effective and productive way of facing uncertainty and discomfort is to make thoughtful choices fueled by love, which is defined as kindness, caring, compassion and civility. This engages our executive functioning and allows us to operate from logic and reasoning rather than fear and negativity. Our responses determine whether we face life empowered and with a positive perspective, or if we relegate ourselves to a more reactive approach that can lead to focusing inward and escalating worry and fear. When we approach events pragmatically, rather than based upon volatile emotion, it enables us to take responsibility and puts us in control. We can apply this to our personal and professional lives to help foster healthy families and create productive workplace practices that will positively impact everyone around us.
In the midst chaos, we can pause to ground ourselves in order to thoughtfully respond to the changes. This action helps us forge a more optimistic future. As Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond. This puts us back in the driver’s seat, from victim of our circumstances to victor.
Frankl was a noted psychologist who spent his years of internment in concentration camps analyzing how prisoners responded in the worst of circumstances. The health and relative well-being of those that chose love in their thoughtful response, despite horrific treatment and conditions, contrasted starkly with those who reacted with anger and fear. In Frankl’s findings, the people who chose love were healthier, lived longer, and were able to find moments of happiness in the midst of hell on earth. The takeaway for us is that it is possible, regardless of our situation, to choose love as a thoughtful response which in turn strengthens us, enabling us to model inner benevolence and good will toward others, both at home and at work.
The space that Frankl refers to is essentially a deliberate pause, perhaps only the length of a deep breath between what is happening and our response, to determine our next step. Do we react impetuously with frustration and fear, or do we take a moment to think through the situation so we can respond with consideration that gives us the confidence to take the best path forward? The ‘space’ is the present moment. It takes courage to pause under duress, yet even in difficulty, this is where life is happening. It’s easier to be present in good times and much harder when we’re challenged. With practice, this ability to pause to make the most productive and healthy choice becomes a habit and can be accomplished with less concentrated effort. Whatever situation we are faced with we have the ability to think through our choices to find the best, most productive response.
Where does love come into this equation for both families and business interactions? Love is kindness, caring, and compassion. Love is the connection that all humans need to survive and thrive. When we thoughtfully respond to any situation with love, we broker peace. This will help your child thrive and your employees flourish. Simply put, when we react impetuously, without thought it allows the situation to have control over us. When we thoughtfully respond with love, we utilize our full capacity from strength, and even grace, to receive a positive outcome. This is in stark contrast to reactions steeped in fear which adds to chaos and breaks down coherence and community.
Love? In the time of COVID? Absolutely. Some might mistakenly view love as weak yet there is no alternative that is as effective. Anger, hatred and violence begets more of the same. Choosing love as a thoughtful response can produce peace in the most difficult of times and can lead to flourishing regardless of what’s happening around us. Our country is in a difficult place right now as we continually face COVID, economic hardship, and civil and political unrest. This points to a greater need for social and emotional competence and the development of a more positive mindset, individually and collectively. A few generations ago, my great grandparents withstood World War I, the 1918 flu pandemic, World War II, and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s, all in one lifetime! Just like those before us, we can respond to this crisis and any adversity we face with courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in action.
When my six-year-old son Jesse was murdered in the Sandy Hook tragedy, I realized I could take back control of my life by choosing how I responded. I chose a loving response, instead of anger, which would have been justified but which would have had lasting negative impact physically, mentally and emotionally on me and my family. In the process, I have been able to model this for many others. I’ve learned that even in the midst of life’s most grueling catastrophe it is possible to choose a loving response which in turn will cultivate peace and calm within ourselves that extends to those around us. Whatever our current reality, this enables us to find the micro-moments of joy happening every day, despite what is going on in our world.
I also realized we are not guaranteed tomorrow. This means we must make the most of today and that includes rising to the occasion, being our best selves and modeling this for others. A loving, thoughtful response fosters equanimity that fuels confidence in our leadership abilities. It takes courage to face uncertainty and fear with love, but this response flows outward and sets an example for others to follow. We must always focus on the present moment, contemplate our options and make a choice based on thoughtful reasoning. It takes some effort, but it’s possible for every one of us to commit to thoughtfully responding with love in 2021 and being part of the solution. Finding the courage to face decision making in this way will resonate for families, businesses and leadership, and it will foster a community of healing and connection.