What makes us able to make the shift from emotional reactivity to constructive response when we face challenging situations? In this brief article, I would like to offer a wonderful way in which we can shift from emotion to response.
Before anything else, we need to understand what a response is. There are two ways to face a situation: reaction and response. Reaction is automatic by nature, and it is merely our defense strategy.
It is natural to react at first. But reacting is not at all like responding. Withdrawing into emotions and wallowing in them, for example, is a reaction. Also, facing a situation while resisting it— facing it only because we have no other choice—is a form of reaction.
Response, on the other hand, can only emerge when you embrace the challenge. Only after you’ve said “yes” and genuinely agreed to be present in the situation are you able to communicate with the situation itself. You can finally listen to it and collaborate with it. You can choose it consciously. And you can guide it while also letting it shape and change you.
That’s why the ability to respond is an expression of resilience. So, what can enable me to respond rather than react?
One ingredient that works like sprinkling magic powder over any situation is meaning. As soon as you believe with all your heart that there is meaning and purpose to your challenge, you are able not only to endure it but also to embrace it.
In many respects, suffering is simply the feeling that my pain and difficulty are senseless. This feeling of the pointlessness of our hardships is the reason that we can’t accept them. We are, after all, beings that need meaning as much as they need air, water, and food. If there is a meaning, we become filled with inconceivable fortitude and strength of mind.
This immediately reminds me of the amazing sentence that Nietzsche coined: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Pay attention to “almost,” since we are still humanly limited and vulnerable. Still, “almost any ‘how’” is a lot!
The one for whom this Nietzsche quote became a motto was the great psychologist Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotheraphy, who was an Auschwitz survivor and directly discovered while in camp the tremendous power of meaning as a person’s strongest weapon in the face of life’s adversities. Frankl came to realize that in the most challenging situation a human could ever face, meaning is one of the most important keys to resilience.
Frankl says that our most basic wish is to find and fulfill meaning in every single life situation that confronts us. In his words, “If there is a meaning to fulfill, then the individual is ready to suffer, ready to offer sacrifices, and ready to undergo tension and stress without any harm being done to their health.”
This is the reason that research persistently demonstrates that religious people are far more resilient. Their suffering has always had meaning and purpose since it is an inseparable part of their relationship with God. Their suffering can never be senseless. It is always a test of faith. So, it is not the belief in God that makes them resilient but rather the feeling that there is a higher reason, even if they don’t understand what it is.
Thus, one of the most significant steps we should take when we are facing a challenging period, a serious challenge, or even just a stressful situation is to ask, “What meaning and purpose can I find in this situation? What is my ‘what for’? What could I gain from this situation if I embraced it, in terms of my wisdom of life, qualities that I should develop, or my potential and vision?”
There is always, of course, an underlying question about whether the purpose we find is a made-up purpose or a revealed and inherent purpose. When we’re nihilists, we won’t believe that there is immanent meaning and purpose hidden in our difficult experiences. We will have another unfounded belief: that everything, including my suffering, is always pointless. As a result, we will experience profound weakness and sink into difficult emotions, which are, as we already understand, resistance to the situation and the wish to withdraw from it.
Psychologically speaking, there is no real difference between a purpose we give and a purpose we discover. What really matters is that for us, in the way we perceive and understand reality, there are logic and order that we can identify in our own world.
Our meaning and purpose may be related to the way a certain situation can help us evolve; for instance, it can teach us how to love or be selfless, and it can even teach us how to be resilient.
A difficult situation can be meaningful and purposeful in the sense that it is a necessary challenge on our way toward higher fulfillment and a destination we strive for. Sometimes, challenging times are meant to remind us of what truly matters in life or push us in the direction of a yet-undiscovered destiny.
One thing is certain: no experience is just meant to lead us to the conclusion that everything is pointless, to sheer hopelessness, or to complete loss of our way. Confusion is there to propel us toward higher-order clarity. Physical pain is there to show us that our spirit is greater than our body.
What is crucial is to have an intense and unwavering conviction that there is no pain or hardship that is meant to purely make us miserable. This is true even for your hardest traumatic memories! Even if you are going to discover only after years how this has been an invaluable piece in the jigsaw puzzle of your life, you can already clearly identify the potential of learning and development.
This is the alchemy that instantly transforms any difficulty into a golden gift. When you’re equipped with this ability, you are fundamentally unbreakable. So, remember to ask this question whenever you are standing in front of what appears to be senseless suffering.
And if you’re seeking a method to develop unshakable resilience yourself, you’re warmly welcomed to participate in this 21-Day Challenge: