Saturday, June 12, 2010


There is a Chinese saying that when a word leaves our mouth, even if we send four fast horses after it, we will not be able to take it back.

Have you ever said or done something – an angry word or a thoughtless act – without a moment’s pause which you later regretted?

I can think of several instances of my own.

In the time between something happening to us, and the time that we do something about it, there is a space.

This space may be just a moment, a split second or it could be longer.

In that space, we pause to choose our attitude towards what happened to us, and by making that choice, determine what we do next.  What we do, in turn, leads to the outcome or result.

During a recent road trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I learned (or was it relearned) the important lesson of taking a pause and choosing the appropriate attitude before taking action.

I was taking a leisurely drive on the North-South Highway from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. As the weather on that Saturday morning was bright and sunny, and as I had ample time, I took extra care to keep to the speed limit of 110 kilometres an hour.

As we approached Malacca town, we noticed the cars bunching up and slowing to a crawl. There was a police road block ahead. The cars inched forward. The police flagged some cars to pull over to the side for questioning while other cars were waved on.

As I had been at my best road behaviour, I was fully confident that I would be waved on.

Imagine my shock, surprise and frustration when I was flagged to the side of the road.

I wound down my window, incredulous at what was happening.

When a policeman with a thick pad of summons in his hand approached and said that I had been speeding, my mind flew instantly to the default reaction mode.

“Are you sure?!” I shot back aggressively without a moment of thought.

The policeman replied firmly: “Yes sir, you had been speeding”.

I persisted: “No way! Do you have any proof?! Show me the proof?!”

The police calmly replied: “Sir, our camera had you speeding at 112 kilometres an hour.”

By this time, I realised that I had been too quick, but it was too late. The policeman promptly issued me a summons for 300 Ringgits (US$90).

In this case, had I paused a moment and chose a less aggressive, less confrontational attitude, perhaps the policeman might have been more understanding. He might have exercised discretion and let me off with only a verbal warning as I had exceeded the speed limit by a mere 2 kilometres. I would not have been 300 Ringgits poorer.

You see when we do not pause and choose our attitude towards what is happening to us, we cannot choose the way we react to the situation. Knee jerk reactions, reacting unthinkingly, seldom if ever, produces favourable outcomes.

What I shared was just a minor episode. The pause is just as important in all other aspects of our lives including in matters of life and death. Indeed, the pause and the choice we make in that space can be a life saver, as I will now show you.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Austria when the Second World War broke out. Frankl was taken away to a concentration along with millions of other Jews. The German leader, Adolf Hitler, had a plan to eliminate all Jews living in territories under German control.

As a psychiatrist, Frankl was fascinated by how different inmates coped with the terrible situation that they were in. They were in the same hell, but there were two distinct groups of inmates – those who survived and those who didn’t.

One group would fall sick, go to sleep and never wake up, or commit suicide. Another group would be going about showing concern for others and caring for others despite their own sufferings.

Frankl concluded that the secret lie in what he called “the last of the human freedoms”. Frankl realised that no matter what the situation we found ourselves in, we always have the freedom to choose our attitude towards it.

Frankl found that those who did not survive the concentration camp were those who were resigned to their fate. Those who succumbed were those who accepted their fate and lost hope. When they were treated badly by the guards, they automatically felt bad. Their sense of self worth took a hit, their morale went downhill, disease and metal anguish followed, and relieve came only when death overtook them.

On the other hand, those who survived were those who consciously chose to stay positive despite their dire situation and the ill treatment at the hands of the guards. Those who survived were those who paused and exercised their freedom to choose, to stay positive.

What do all these mean to me?

The next time a challenge arises, I will take a pause, however brief, to choose my attitude before I respond. I will strive not to live life on autopilot.

Give the pause and freedom of choice a try.

Pause. Exercise your freedom of choice because you will be amazed with the results.

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