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One of the Most Powerful Features of Human Beings

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Woman standing in a dry cornfield maze.

In my most recent article, Mapping Your Worldview, I talked about how the influence of one's worldview can shape one's purpose. While I am not about to lecture you on what you should incorporate into your own worldview, I do want to share with you a perspective that has been very helpful for me in my life. And perhaps it will be of some encouragement to you as well.

In his deeply insightful book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl makes the following point:

“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.”

I think part of what Dr. Frankl is trying to teach us here is that as human beings we are not simply acted upon, we are self-determining actors. We have the ability, even in the most difficult situations, to select a choice that is different from what history, socialization, or DNA might be pressing us to do.

When I was a graduate student in sociology at Purdue University, one of my friends who was a physics major made an announcement to me in front of several of our peers. This is how the conversation went.

"You know what's wrong with you social scientists?" he declared.
I replied with a smile, "No, but I'm sure I'm about to find out."
Unimpressed, he went on, "You have no laws. You have no way of predicting anything in your area of study, no second law of thermodynamics, no law of universal gravitation, nothing. You have no assurance of anything about your subject matter."
I nodded for a moment and replied, "That my friend, is because I am not studying water vapor or lead. I am studying human beings, the most fascinating and unpredictable objects in the universe."

And after all these years I still believe that to be true. Humans are such fascinating creatures. This is partly the case because they have the ability to surprise us. And when I say, "they," I mean us, I mean you, I mean me.

Let me be transparent for a moment and give you an example from my own life. Before I do, however, I should mention that some people may find this story a bit self-promoting or prideful. That is not my intention. Quite the contrary, in presenting this example I think it reveals some of my deep-seated flaws and quirks. Sadly, I am not yet free of these problems, though I do believe I am making some progress in this area. My purpose in sharing this narrative is to demonstrate how even the most baked-in attitudes can be transformed, if only one accepts that s/he is free to change. My hope is that this real life example will encourage you to take your own steps towards healing, reconciliation, and purpose. With that caveat out of the way, let me begin.

In 2014 I was living in eastern Iowa and I went on a trip with my wife to Lincoln, Nebraska. On our way to Lincoln we stopped at a big box store in Omaha to get some drinks and treats. (Ironically, we visited a store not very far from where we now live. At that time I never would have guessed that approximately 8 years later I would be calling Omaha my home. Or should I say my, "Home-aha?") In any case, it was a cloudy day and the wind was blowing pretty fiercely as a summer storm was closing in.

Kathryn and I got out of the car and walked through the fairly empty parking lot. We browsed around inside, bought our refreshments, and then left the store. When we returned to our vehicle I was a bit apprehensive to discover a shopping cart touching up against the front passenger's side of my vehicle. I moved the cart away only to discover what I feared. The wind must have blown the shopping cart into our SUV with a fairly significant force, because the right front fender now had a pretty large dent in it. I was sick to my stomach.

Our car a little after the "incident." The dent is below the antenna.

You see I was raised in a home where cars were considered a symbol of one's self-image. Both my paternal grandfather and my father kept their cars immaculate. Growing up I spent many hours detailing interiors and buffing off exterior wax. My dad used to say, "If you can't keep a car clean, then why have it at all." (This statement makes absolutely no sense to me today, but this was a worldview that I fully bought into back then.)

Growing up, we would thoroughly clean our family car just before we went on vacation and right after we got back. And I can remember several times, while we were still on vacation, taking our station wagon to the self-service car wash to clean it some more. From a young age I was fully socialized into believing that it was critical to keep one's automobile in pristine condition. This also meant that if your car ever got a dent or a scratch you must immediately take it to the body shop and get it repaired. Featherstones might not be able to buy a brand new car every year, but they sure as heck could drive one that looked like it. I didn't just go along with this idea, I fully endorsed it. I lived this family custom without question into my early 40s.

So there I was, standing in a parking lot, on a windy day with rain now coming down, and lightning flashing in the distance. I imagined that God Himself was reacting to this tragedy before me. I knew I wasn't happy about it, and I was sure my grandfather was rolling over in his grave as well. After calling down curses on the city of Omaha I decided I would get a repair estimate as soon as we got home. I needed to get this dent fixed right away and remove this disgrace from our family line.

Soon after we got home I visited my preferred body shop, one I had used before and was happy with their quality and pricing. The estimate to fix the fender was much more than I had anticipated. It would cost more than my $500 insurance deductible, which meant I was going to have to spend half a grand out of my own pocket. I told my wife the bad news (she was supportive as she knew this was very important to me) and I scheduled an appointment for the repair work to be completed. The world was about to be made right once again.

And then something happened.

As I was driving to work the next morning the following thought struck me, "What if I didn't repair the dent?" What blasphemy was this? I purged the thought from my mind. But it came back. "What if I didn't repair the dent?"

It was obvious that the dent wasn't affecting the safety or drivability of my vehicle in any way. What if I just ignored the dent and held on to the $500? It was a surprising idea. Then something even more radical came to my mind.

What if I didn't repair the dent and instead used the $500 for something else? What if I gave the $500 to someone in need? I practically drove off the road because of that thought. I could spend half a grand to bend some metal by less than an inch or I could choose to be a blessing in someone's life. When I got to work, I cancelled the repair appointment. When I got home, my wife and I talked about which nonprofit to give the money to. We mailed off our check the next morning.

That was a pretty significant day for me in two ways. First, it was the day I reconsidered a long held belief and left it behind. The idea that "we have to keep our cars looking like new, no matter what the cost" is not something I adhere to anymore. (Now to be fair, it doesn't mean that I don't repair my vehicles or that I don't keep my car clean. Sometimes I'm still a bit too particular in this area, ask my kids, but I think I take on a much more moderated approach now.)

This was also a significant day for me because it served as a confirmation that people can indeed change their ways, even in areas we previously thought were nonnegotiable. Human beings can do things differently if we consider the possibilities. But as I suggested in my article, Down the Rabbit Hole of Purpose, we typically need a deeper goal to initiate and guide this change.

For me the factor that drove my change was my desire to be a more generous person. I knew that I wanted to give more to others in need, but I was struggling to take action in this area. To make progress I had to be forced to look at my bank account. The dent made me think about $500 that was already in my possession. How did I want to use it? Second, I needed to actually contemplate the full range of ways I could respond to the situation in front of me. In my mind there were three options:

  1. I could spend $500 to fix the dent.

  2. I could ignore the dent and keep my $500.

  3. I could reshape the dent into a symbol of personal improvement.

Simple decision diagram of possible actions I could take.

I know this last option might sound a bit strange, but that's how I saw it. By giving the $500 to a charity, I wasn't simply ignoring the dent. It was still there, and to be honest, in some ways it still bothered me for a while. But every time I looked at it, I reminded myself that that dent was a metaphor for me. I am a damaged person who wants to be fixed. But in this particular case, this dent represents my lack of generosity. Once I realized this and donated the money, every time I looked at my damaged car I no longer saw a problem with my vehicle, I saw progress in myself.

This is one of the most powerful features of human beings--our ability to reshape meaning and to change our ways. While my example here may seem a bit ridiculous to some, I'm sure each of us possesses a peculiar perspective that prohibits us from pursuing our purpose. What's the dent you need to fix in your own life? It's important to remember that we humans possess the unique ability to change. But as I will discuss in later articles, this is often much more complicated than we'd like it to be.

(Credits: Woman in the corn photo by Burst on Unsplash; Book cover from; Red SUV photo by author; Decision Tree Diagram alsocreated by author)

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