Do you find some people really annoying? The things they say or the way they behave can be so bothersome and irritating.

I know I do and I am sure I am not alone in that! We say things like ‘she makes me so mad’ or ‘he frustrates and irritates me so much’. And maybe there are legitimate things that the other person says or does which are understandably frustrating and annoying.

However, the diagram below (from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) challenges those assumptions in some radical ways.

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In Biology at school we learnt that for simple organisms like an amoeba or relatively straight forward structures like the knee joint, there is a predictable response to a stimulus. You prod an amoeba and it goes in a certain direction. Or you strike the front of the knee and you get an involuntary knee jerk reaction.

But we as human beings are much more complex than that.

Granted most people do react to circumstances, but just because they do does not mean you and I have to do the same.

The fact is that for human beings between stimulus and response is a space. In that space we have the power to choose how we respond.

If you think about the word ‘responsibility’ you will notice it is from 2 words – response and ability. In other words responsibility is the ability to choose your response. An extreme example illustrates this…..

Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist caught in the terrible and brutal horrors of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Apart from his sister, his entire family perished. For Frankl himself there was torture, physical and psychological abuse on an unimaginable scale. At any moment death could be around the corner or he could be called to remove dead bodies or shovel the ashes of fellow prisoners.

It was in this truly horrific environment Frankl became aware of what he would later call ‘the last of the human freedoms’. It was a freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. His physical environment was completely controlled by others; he had no choice as to how he spent his day and his tormentors could do what they wanted to his body. He began to realise he was self-aware and could look at everything happening to him as a detached observer. There was a part of himself no one could touch. His identity did not have to be affected by all that was going on around him.

In his mind Frankl created a small oasis that was impervious to all the brutality that was going on in his external environment. He could decide within himself how all this was going to affect him.

Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose his response. Here is how Covey builds on this:

“In the midst of his experiences, Frankly would project himself into different circumstances, such as lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would describe himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.

Through a series of such disciplines – mental, emotional and moral, principally using memory and imagination – he exercised his small embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment; but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence.”

Yes it is an extreme example, but it illustrates how through stimulus (the irritation or external suffering) and response (how we think and behave) there is the freedom to choose.

Within this freedom to choose, and in addition to self-awareness, we can call upon:

Imagination – that is the ability to create in our minds something beyond our present reality.

Conscience – a deep inner awareness of what is right and wrong. those principles that guide what we do and a sense of how much our thoughts and actions are in harmony with them.

Independent will – our ability to act from our self-awareness in a way free of all other influences.

Having read and reflected on this is that person a little less irritating to you now?

You may also find of interest the following posts:

Podcast #022: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Could This Be The Real James Bond? on the life of James Bond Stockdale

The Search For Joy on the life of Nick Vujicic