Viktor Emil Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor, says something in one of his books, Man’s Search for Meaning, which I like and latch onto so much: “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
I saw the wisdom in this saying some years ago when I served as the director of a Catholic printing press in the port city of Douala in Cameroon. During one of my visits abroad, I bought a small laptop computer. In those days, the early twenties, laptops were still rare in Cameroon. Nowadays, they are found at every street corner, thanks to traders who frequently travel to Dubai.
Mine was a beauty, a precious jewel into which I put my whole heart. In fact, I placed it on a small table in my office and proudly showed it to anyone who came to see me. Even when they did not seem to notice it themselves, I would always stir our conversation to computers and then ‘innocently’ point to my jewel and listen to them scream: “Wow, how lovely! What a beauty!” and I would feel my ego swell as a smile lit up my face from ear to ear.
Then, one Friday morning, something ‘truly tragic’ happened to it. I arrived in my office and found my laptop on the tiled floor. I picked it up and my heart nearly missed a beat, and for a good reason, because the screen was completely shattered.
I must have screamed out loud because my finance manager and his secretary rushed in to see what the matter was. I showed them my laptop and asked where the cleaning lady was. She was the only one with the key to my office. She always came in earlier than me to clean the office. I was told she had left in a hurry, claiming that she had to take her grand-daughter to the hospital. I did not need any more proof of her guilt, and I must have shouted many unprintable things about her to the hearing of many.
I was so upset I could barely concentrate on anything so I packed my bag and drove back home, fuming with rage. It was by sheer luck that I did not cause an accident on the way. My weekend was ruined. I thought of nothing else except my precious laptop that lay in pieces before me. I was determined to fire the cleaning lady first thing Monday morning. I already had her dismissal letter neatly written out in my mind. All I needed to do was type it, print a copy, discuss the issue with our company lawyer, and serve it to her, and watch her back disappear out the door.
As we drove to church Sunday morning, I was still complaining about my computer when my wife asked me to put it in prayer because “It’s only a computer, after all! Pray over it and you will feel much better.” Her advice infuriated me all the more. However, as I sat in church hardly paying attention to what the priest was saying, her words began to gain volume in my mind. Was a computer really worth that much for me to consider dismissing the poor cleaner over it? It was then I heard as if someone was also speaking into my ear: “Forget it. Don’t raise your blood pressure over a mere computer.” Was that the voice of the Holy Spirit asking me to drop the matter? It perhaps was because a feeling of ease suddenly descended upon me, and I began to see the folly of the action I was planning to take.
Monday morning, I went to the office and sent for the cleaner. She came in timidly, barely lifting her eyes off her toes. Without asking her to explain what had happened, I merely told her that accidents do happen and that it could happen to anyone, even to me. My only complaint was that she had failed to let me know what had happened. The next time she broke anything in any office, she should own up and let me, or her supervisor, know about it.
She shot a furtive glance at me as if she did not believe her ears. Then she bent her head down and broke into tears. I was taken aback. I walked up to her, not sure of how to comfort her, wondering if it was appropriate for me to put my hand on her shoulder, but decided not to touch her. I simply asked her to calm down and go back to work.
Shortly before leaving for home that day, she knocked at my office door, came in and told me she just wanted to thank me for not firing her. She said she had felt too scared to tell me that she had accidentally dropped the computer when she was cleaning the dust off the table. In-between sobs, she said she had not slept all weekend because she feared that she had lost her job. Without her job, she said, her family would suffer greatly because she was the only breadwinner of her family. Her husband had been laid off from his job at the seaport several years earlier after an injury that had disabled him. She was a grandmother and did not only take care of her husband but also of her grandchildren and their mother, who was single and unemployed.
As I listened to her, I was glad that the incident had happened on Friday because I had the weekend to reflect on my response. The weekend served as the space Victor Frankl says exists between the stimulus (in this case, my broken laptop) and my response (whether to fire her or not). In that space, my wife’s voice (“it’s a mere computer, after all”) — which I had found so irritating at first — made me discern what line of action to take. I was glad the space gave me the freedom to make a good decision. The cleaner got to keep her job.