An excerpt from Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.
A rental car counter clerk had the audacity to tell me that the SUV I ordered was not available and I could only have a minivan. (I know, I can feel your blood boiling, too.) In the past, my reaction would have been completely random, most likely based on what I had for breakfast (it was a subconscious response).
Dichotomy of control opened my eyes to the fact that I cannot change others’ behavior, which is external to me – but I can change how I respond to it. Easier said than done. I am an emotional person. If left unchecked, my negative triggers lead to automatic, negative responses, and later to enormous guilt for these responses. Let’s be honest, that is a horrible way to lead a life.
Stoics have this wonderful concept: pre-emotion (propatheia). Pre-emotion is an innate, unjudged, unevaluated feeling. My initial feeling of anger at the car rental counter is pre-emotion. I cannot control it. It is programmed into me by Mother Nature. In our cavemen days, when a leopard jumped in front of us out of the bush, Mother Nature did not want us to philosophize; she wanted us to react and react fast.
Without judgment, pre-emotion automatically converts into an emotion and then into a reaction. But judgment can convert this pre-emotion into a more positive emotion and then into a more effective reaction. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychologist, said, “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.”
Judgment lives in that brief space Frankl described, between stimulus (event) and response, and between pre-emotion and emotion. This is why the concept of pre-emotion is so wonderful: I can blame Mother Nature for it. But I cannot shift the responsibility for my emotion.
What is correct judgment? The rational me has a core value: Leave the world a better place than I found it. Add to the lives of people I come into contact with, rather than subtracting from them. But my emotions often don’t let me live up to this ideal. The judgment step is when I ask myself one of these things: “If I look at my behavior an hour from now, will I be proud of it? Am I following my values?”
I cannot control whether the rental company has the car I want; nor can I change the world. Yes, the world will disappoint me at times, but I can control how I respond.
This basically sums up the event, judgment, reaction (EJR) framework: There is an event which triggers pre-emotion; then you have a space where you insert your judgment, which in turn calibrates your emotion and reaction.
One more thought. Though pre-emotions are innate feelings programmed by Mother Nature, by practicing EJR for a while we are able to reprogram them. I treat mini-incidents like these as little Stoic quizzes that give me an opportunity to practice the EJR framework, helping me reprogram my pre-emotions into healthy emotions.
Epictetus sums it up for us: “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed; you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential we do not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”
Vitaliy Katsenelson is a chief investment officer and author of Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.
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