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Gerry ChidiacIt’s said that successful people aren’t those without problems, they’re simply those who deal effectively with their problems.

This is an easy claim to make but what does it really mean?

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells us that between stimulus and response there’s a gap and it’s in this gap where we find our greatest human freedom: the freedom to choose our response.

This sounds wonderful, but what’s in this gap and what do we do there? Does it mean taking a walk when I’m upset, and thinking about why I am so upset and why my anger is justified? Is this gap simply the time I need to figure out a way to get even?

Not exactly. Vengeance is always tempting but it’s unlikely to bring us the long-term success we’re looking for.

The concept of making effective use of this gap is beautifully explained by Covey’s son Sean in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

First, it’s necessary to simply observe yourself. “I can feel my heart rate increasing and my muscles tensing. I must be angry. I wonder why I find this so upsetting? Do I really want to hand the control of my emotions over to this other person?”

Learning to meditate is an amazing way to expand the gap. As my skills in this area evolved, I was amazed at how time actually seemed to slow down and allow me to calmly contemplate my next step.

From this place of calm, you can more easily get in tune with your natural sense of right and wrong. The human conscience tells us to embrace the universal principles we know are life-giving. The Seven Sacred Teachings given to us by our Indigenous elders offer us a beautiful summary. They tell us to seek humility, honesty, respect, courage, truth, wisdom and love. If we can do so, we’re sure to move in the right direction.

This leads us to imagine what could happen in the future. The great Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, when enduring the cruelty and loss of life in a concentration camp, would imagine himself teaching about his experience years later in a warm lecture hall. These thoughts became the basis of Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most influential books ever written.

Imagining the future allows us to find meaning in our suffering. We’re able to turn our negative experiences into wisdom and inspiration to fulfil our purpose as humans. Just like Frankl, we have a significant mission to accomplish in life. Why would we allow a negative experience to relinquish this awesome potential to do good?

Responding positively to negative situations isn’t easy, however. Thus, Sean Covey tells us that the final act for us to take in the gap is to embrace our willpower. I choose not to scream and act out. I choose to walk away from provocation. I choose to be my best self and then I carry out the actions I know are right.

Life isn’t easy and we’re not perfect beings. There’s also a great deal we don’t control. We can’t do anything about the past or about earlier decisions we’ve made. Governments change, economies shift, people let us down and we experience downturns in our health.

The only thing we control is ourselves. We can choose our attitude and response in any given situation. This is our greatest strength. We simply need to embrace it.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.

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