Where Our Freedom Lies

Photo by Espen Bierud

Anthony was a close friend of mine during my university days in the United Kingdom.

An Englishman from Exeter, he was quite a temperamental fellow, prone to severe mood swings from time to time. One day, he would be as docile as a chihuahua. And the very next day, he would be as grumpy as Donald Duck.

What was oddly interesting about Anthony was that we could tell how his mood would be for the day – simply by looking at the (equally temperamental) English weather.

If the day was sunny, we could rest easy, knowing that we would get the cheerful side of Anthony. And if it rained, we would brace for the worst, for “Tornado Tony” would rear his ugly head.

Still, I loved Anthony to bits. Beneath the unpredictable demeanour was a fiery ambition to match (he became a successful entrepreneur in the food business). He was a driven man who achieved success with a strong moral compass; he had not only done the right things, but he did things right.

And of course, I’d be forever thankful to him for teaching me the art of having cream tea the Devonian way: clotted cream before strawberry jam!

Pauseability Equals Freedom

I had recently caught up with Anthony, and we had talked about the many fond memories that we had together during our years in England.

Naturally, the topic of “Tornado Tony” came up, and we had a good laugh over it.

“You know, Zan,” he quipped. “For a long time, the weather had affected how I would feel. But I have realized just how silly it was.”

I smiled. “We know how crappy the English weather could get. You don’t have to feel bad.”

Anthony laughed. “Well, I guess I can choose to look at the day and despair over the things I can’t control. For example, the weather. Or, if my boss is going to give me a raise. Or, if my side hustle is going to take off. Or, if there’s some arsehole going to hog the squat rack at the gym.”

“Or, I can stop getting jerked around by all these things, and think of what I can control. If it rains, I’ll just use an umbrella. No biggie. Or, if I’m not getting a raise, maybe I’ll just quit and work on my side project full time. Or, if someone’s using the squat rack, I can do deadlifts instead.”

“We all like to think that we have lots of control over our lives. The truth is that we don’t. And I’m fine with that.”

I wouldn’t have thought to hear that from “Tornado Tony” in a million years.

“The one thing that we do control is the ability to choose how to respond to the things we don’t control,” I had offered. “And that’s quite enough for me.”

Anthony smiled. “True, but this is not as simple as it sounds. I found it tremendously hard at first. Reacting to things feel, you know, natural. It’s probably hard-wired into our brain.”

I nodded.

“It takes practice. The ability to stop ourselves from reacting immediately to things that happen to us is a superpower,” I said. “The space between impulse and reaction, ultimately, is where our freedom lies.”

After the meeting with Anthony, I spent more time thinking about what he had said.

Indeed, I would agree that delaying reaction does not come easy for most of us for a simple reason – it’s not natural. The brain is a quick, trigger-happy decision machine by design – engineered to spew out instructions for the body to act in the interest of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, it’s the bias of the mind towards self-preservation that causes much of the unhappiness in a man’s life. It’s why we never fulfill our potential – because we are too ingrained in the minutia of the moment while neglecting what lies in the longer time horizon.

To delay reaction, to exercise pauseability. There’s where our freedom ultimately lies.