t For Wednesday, December 30, 2015:
“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 our freedom.”
Viktor E. Frankl
“At the still point, there the dance is.”
T. S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets”
Viktor Frankl founded the school of therapy known as ‘logotherapy’ after he survived three years at Auschwitz during WW II. His best-known book is Man’s Search for Meaning.
During his time in the concentration camp, Frankl discovered that even one small positive comment a day helped many camp internees endure and survive the brutalities under which they suffered. While there was obviously no reason to dance, Frankl’s positive words gave some meaning to their lives, something for them to hold on to in the face of unspeakable evil and horrors.
Eventually others joined Frankl in this daily practice and found that not only did they help others, they were helping themselves as well.
That’s the history in a tiny nutshell — I recommend exploring his life and example, and reading his book for a more in-depth understanding of Frankl’s vital importance — but it might serve as fodder for us as writers.
And on a much more mundane level, I want to suggest, on behalf of our characters, that we writers need to comprehend the difference between ‘response’ and ‘reaction.’ So many people say or write ‘reaction’ when what they mean is ‘response,’ or vice-versa.
Our response is that space, that moment in time when we stop and consider how we, or our characters, decide to act – or not – to some kind of stimulus, good or bad. Response requires some kind of decision-making. Think ‘knee jerk,’ however, and you get ‘reaction,’ that which we do without thinking – such as when someone cuts us off while driving, say, and our hand goes up in a rude gesture and ugly words come out of our mouth.
It might be a good exercise to give a character a stimulus and then explore his or her response and reaction to the same stimulus. Which fits the character and/or situation best? How does each turn the story or develop the character?
Another piece of wisdom from Frankl is one I hold close to my heart: “What is to give light must first endure burning.” That can be a metaphor for so many things – especially given Frankl’s experience – but we can also remember, or have our character(s) remember, that candle flames, once lighted, will frequently dance in a breeze or a breath of air.
Or that still, quiet point of just the right words that give meaning to life, either in reality or for our characters.