There is indeed a very short list of moments wherein it’s good to be reactive:
If there is a tiger in your house. If your house is on fire. If your dog, your spouse, or you are on fire. When you are halfway home from Chuck E Cheese, and your spouse says, “Where’s the baby?” When your platoon leader shouts, “Incoming!” If you are a major news outlet and our Commander-in-Pre-Adolesence tweets yet another 5th grade playground neener neener badly packaged as truth, leadership and keen oratory.
Yes. Sometimes we have to react. Sometimes we should.
But, mostly, being reactive isn’t very helpful. People often aren’t at their best when they are reacting.
Consider a great warrior. When the tribe is ambushed by hostile forces, the warrior reacts to the ambush, yes. But the counterattack is no reaction. He doesn’t tear into the forest, raging, grieving and shooting arrows in random directions. Nope. He calms himself. He bridles his anger, and contains (for now) his grief. He finds a mercenary focus.
And then the warrior … acts. He does not react.
The lesson of the warrior applies to anyone who has dashed off a crazed, angry email and then actually sent it.
Revenge is a reaction. Justice is an action. Peace is a proaction.
Lately, I spend a lot of time with couples and parents, encouraging people to stop reacting. Reactivity is a bad habit in important relationships.
Stressed couples or couples in crisis often find that they are helpless to even anticipate, let alone stop incendiary spirals of reactive conflict. One moment things seem fine. Then, without warning, the conversation becomes a chain reaction of splitting atoms. KABOOM!
Exhausted and demoralized, the couple stands shell-shocked. Was it me who just spoke so vilely to the man/woman whom I love and cherish? How did that happen?
Reactivity is a bad interpersonal habit. That’s how it happened.
Think of reactivity as having undisciplined emotions. Emotions that can instantaneously cause you to stop thinking. And if you can’t think you can’t act. You can only react.
I teach couples to treat reactive conflict like you would a stage play rehearsal. Somebody must recognize the emerging, reactive hurricane for just what it is, and then yell, “Cut!” Everybody freezes. The director says, “Ten minute break, and then let’s come back and discuss this scene.”
Because, if the couple can take time out to breath, feel, settle down, then they can think. And if they can think, then they can discuss what went wrong in the scene. And if they can talk about it, then, glory be, they can rewrite the scene!
Attention, parents! Reacting to infants and toddlers makes you ridiculous. The task is to proact. To stay several steps ahead.
Attention, parents of adolescents! Your teenage children lovelovelove to make you reactive. And they are experts at the task. The slow, contemptuous amble towards the chores. The contemptuous rolling eyes. The contemptuous “tick” noise they make popping their tongue off their palate. (You’ll notice contempt is quite the theme in the adolescent repertoire.)
The long-suffering exhalation. The passive-aggressive forgetting. The glaze-eyed “Idunnoh.”
And parents react. They beg. Plead. Implore. Describe how important it is to get an education. Or they shout. Scream. Curse. Profane, humiliate and belittle their children. Foam at the mouth. Say, well, reactive things like, “You’re grounded for a month!”
And, of course, sometimes reactive parents hit.
Game, set, match – teenager. The minute you allow yourself to be suckered into reacting, you lose.
Years ago, around 10:30 p.m. on a school night, my then-teenage son stuck his head out on the back porch, and made his entitled demand: “Pop, you gotta take me to Wal-Mart!”
T’was a time that I might have reacted. Raised my voice in annoyance. Lectured him about his manners and his poor planning.
But, this time I didn’t even look up from the magazine I was reading. “Boy, first off, I don’t gotta do anything.” I turned the page, slowly, for dramatic effect. “And, for the record, when was the last time you got something you wanted from me by talking to me that way?”
He heaved a sigh a tromped off. Came back 10 minutes later and asked politely. Humbly. I reached for my keys. Said I’d be happy to take him.
Set this as your target: “Today, I will remember that no one has the power to make me reactive. Only I decide if, when and how to act.”
The target is worthy. Rigorous, but worthy.
(Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)