The Hard Work of Making Choices

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I participated in a conversation yesterday in which it was lamented that the liberal left in North America has finally achieved Nirvana – extinction/disappearance. It was said that there is such a consciousness of the harm that we have done to each other and of the harm that’s been done to us that we are like the snake swallowing its tail. Everybody is in self-defence mode, cocooned against external influence and ready to attack if we feel attacked.

We exercise our right not to have other people ‘trigger’ our ‘triggers’ – the words or statements or expression of values that remind us of a time when we were a victim. We are accumulating and rewarding histories of victimhood and we are losing sight of our nobler capacities for heroism and courage. The participants in this conversation talked about the difficulty of communicating honestly and fluently. Communication with others has become an obstacle course between your triggers and mine.

Stephen Covey caught my attention some years back when he asked ‘what are you doing with your dash?’ I wanted to make sure I got the reference right, so I Googled it. I got “About 62,500,000 results” in “(0.48 seconds)”. There’s of course a YouTube video and someone wrote a poem about using one’s dash advisedly, and so on. BUT I couldn’t find any reference to Covey per se. So I had to delve differently.

And now I remember (prompted by all the stuff that comes up with you Google “Stephen Covey”): Covey talked about the gap between stimulus and response.

Stimulus    [GAP]    Response

It’s not quite the same thing as the “dash” (a.k.a. “-“) between your DOB and your DOD. It is more of a Nano-second look at how we make choices in the moment. Of course that happens frequently during the long roll out of choices and consequences over a lifetime that is represented by the dash. In fact, it is the same thing, just within a very compressed time dimension.

Covey argued that we constantly have and exercise choices. Even in not choosing we make a choice. For example, if I can’t choose between going for a walk or a swim and instead I stay home and vegetate on the deck, I’ve made a choice to do that. Some might call it drifting into doing nothing. Sure. That’s still a choice. Drifters choose drifting by not choosing anything else instead.

Positive psychology researchers have opened up a new path – a new way of being, which I initially liked and distrusted. Instead of trying to understand our pain and our failings, they work on understanding our happiness and achievements. I was filled with ‘yes, buts’. If we don’t understand our failures how can we learn? Don’t we learn from our mistakes? Didn’t our parents/ teachers/elders spank us, when it was still permitted, so that we could learn from the pain of it?

What are the choices we have learnt to make in this era? Is living in a perpetual state of victimhood an empowering experience? It can be. You can gain control over others through guilt and intimidation, it seems to me. Is it, however, healthy to remain in such a mental frame for the rest of your life?

I don’t believe so.

I believe that there’s a responsibility to oneself to choose to move out of victimhood: to choose a path that will be the source of positive learning, affirmation of the strength and creativity in us, and which will create a positive aura around us that makes us attractive to be with, and therefore welcome to join others.

I’m not saying it is easy, and I’m not launching into a blame-the-victim campaign.

All I am saying is,

Give yourself a chance.

When there is a negative stimulus (e.g. a trigger), and before you respond, think about the gap: there is scope for choice. Attacking the other person with “you’re triggering me” keeps you locked into the past. Taking a deep breath and saying “that’s behind me, I’ll walk away” is an alternate choice. It takes practice to be positive and empowered. New neural pathways need to be built to become consistently positive, constructive and empathic. It takes time.

Becoming aware of the gap between stimulus and response is the first essential step that I believe we need to learn – where one actually acquires the ability to say ‘no, I don’t like that word you use to refer to me or my loved ones’. There’s a conscious choice between absorbing the insult, and throwing it back, like a javelin. Strong, straight, sharp: deadly. So as we become stronger we become more adept at aiming and tossing. We always have several spares, just in case. We’re strong. So is the other person.

Ok, so maybe I’m LGBT and white. And maybe you’re an African Nova Scotian. You have your heightened awareness about your heritage and colour and I have mine. We’re both of the same political persuasion, broadly speaking, but we are so focused on what is different that we can’t afford to leave home without our armour, radar and javelins. We’re so encumbered with our baggage that we can’t move forward. We can barely speak to each other because our common language is so peppered with trigger words. Is this the way to be? Where communities attempt to come together in common cause over a shared concern, and the compelling issue gets lost because we’re too busy squabbling about what inclusivity means and who’s been insulted by not getting the email at the same time as everyone else. And so fracking goes ahead, or privatising health care or open net finfish farming or the closure of rural schools, or whatever else is truly on the agenda.

It is time to change how we deal with the opportunity in the gap. Each time that we choose to be positive and mutually constructive, before we respond, will be a small step towards changing what the dash on the tombstone means. From “here lies a victim” it can signify, instead, “here lies a life fulfilled”.

© Delphine du Toit (2014)


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1 Comment

  1. joanewhite on July 17, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Well. Very thought provoking and also reaction provoking. I reacted to a lot of what you said as I was reading this. Good job making me react and reflect

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