spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

React or Respond


Cerrado / Valerie Everett
This piece still speaks for me although I gave it in 2009 from the lectern at the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist church because I got caught up in a familiar pattern of lashing out at my then girlfriend, Corky. And recently through meditation I have come to realize that between react and respond, it’s the pause that counts.

I’m guessing it would be better for everybody I know if I could see the light of reason before getting hot under the collar. I’d like to give myself a choice between reacting and responding rather than defaulting to react. I don’t want to be the queen of bounce back and jab, more apt to react than respond.

 “React”- to do back.  You point out a flaw, so I find a shortcoming.  You act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, so I pretend you don’t make sense to me either.  You yell at me, so I yell back.

On the very morning I ask the universe to provide me with a lesson, it arrives just as I lock the door to our place of business on Buckingham Way at about 10:30 a.m. and slide the closed sign into place. The receptionist begins to process the Weight Watcher meeting and because the computer program is new for us, we want to work without interruption. But two women are standing outside our locked door and appear to be staring at the door. I take in a deep breath, remembering what our trainers call “The Service Vision” and open the door. “Hello,” I smile warmly, wishing they would go away, prepared to tell them with the next deep breath that they can’t come in but are welcome to attend the next meeting. But before I say anything, one of the women explodes with, “Do I look like I need to lose weight?”

Ah ha, I smile to myself. Clearly, this is a reaction. For a minute I say nothing. What do I say now? Certainly not, “What is wrong with you?” That too would be a reaction. Perhaps she thinks she is being funny the way I sometimes think I’m being funny. So I ask her, “Are you being funny?” She says that she isn’t and then apologizes. Seems, she is super sensitive about appearing overweight. As for whether or not she is carrying a few or many extra pounds, I wouldn’t know because she is covered by a heavy coat. I continue to smile and introduce myself. She responds with her name. We shake hands. No harm. No foul. As we say in sports.

What makes “reacting” so much easier and quicker than “responding”? One theory has it that we have had every original experience we are ever going to have by the age of 19. From that time on, much of what we anticipate in the way of experiences will be based on memories of what went before. If you think 19 is a little young for every experience, the idea of recalling early experiences still has validity and helps explain to me why while watching a movie, my girlfriend, Corky, twitches, flinches or shudders at every loud screen sound. She doesn’t wait to find out if the plot warrants the flinch. Maybe movie scares were big in her childhood, and loud screen sounds continue to act as a trigger.

It sheds some light to think of reacting as reliving the past while responding is experiencing the present and thinking about how the future may result from how we behave. No wonder reacting is so much faster and familiar than responding.

For me, the difference between react and respond is more than just a powerful concept based on etymological differences. It’s an opportunity to see the light before reaching the end of the tunnel and having to look back at where I’ve been and what I’ve said or done and then having to apologize or regret that I didn’t make something new of the experience. Unless, of course, there is a train coming through that tunnel and my best recourse is to react. It’s usually not a matter of either/or, as much as it is of knowing the difference and choosing the wiser course of action. So here’s to less cursing the darkness and more lighting of candles    

Gregory J Rittger
12/19/2011 06:38:59 am

This speaks directly to me. I'm a master reactor, and it doesn't take much for me to go into "meltdown". I nearly always end up ankle deep in a pool of toxic regret. I'm gonna strive to put "respond" at my core. Thank you.

Carole Schultz
12/19/2011 11:08:24 am

Alison, I am a very long time friend
of Greg's. In keeping with his sweet, generous spirit, he has shared your site with me. I've enjoyed reading each of your posts but this one spoke the loudest! I hope you don't mind if I take the opportunity to respond.

As the mother of three children (two teens and a pre) I am too well versed in the art of "reaction" while constantly striving to perfect the "respond" technique. From the perspective of a mom, I'm not sure I can fully accept the theory of reliving the past as the basis for my impulse to react. I believe, for me anyway, that many "mom" experiences are unique. If they weren't, I'm not sure how many of us would have travelled down this path! Regardless, your speech is food for thought in MY quest to always be a better mother and a more effective "responder". Thank you!
Carole Schultz

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