React or respond?

True life story.

Friday was my birthday. I like birthdays. I do, I like them very much. I enjoy the celebration and the feeling that I get when I look back and realize how much I learned over the year and when I look forward and realize how many wonderful experiences await me. A birthday, to me, is a day for reflection and rejoicing.

It also…unfortunately…turned into a day of being cut down in anger by a family member.

Now here’s the thing. All of us, every human, go about our lives in a manner that reflects our experiences, our preferences or simply our process. If while doing that we appear to be conducting ourselves in a way that someone deems unacceptable, we have a choice. We can listen to what they have to say, meld the input with whatever is inside us at the time, and change accordingly. Or we can close the door to their input and continue on as usual.

I’m interested in melding, if possible, and particularly in this situation which involves another family member whose interests I do hold dear. So ideally the first family member’s input would have been offered in a way that I could process and my feedback would clarify the situation and we would go from there, with future conversations to assess how it all was going.

Ideally. Heh.

This is difficult to do when someone’s anger takes over, when they whomp you upside your previously happy birthday head with their put downs and belittling, diminishing statements and when you are left in tears, not sure exactly what to do next. Yeah…nothing ideal about that.

I can still take something from this, but instead of the cooperative environment that would have led to real success, there is now a hostile environment (on his part, at least) and one where trust and respect have been removed (on my part). Still, the bottom line is that if there is something I can do to make things better for someone I care about, I will do them.

And there is as clear an example as I can find for the difference between reacting and responding. This family member reacted to input that he failed to clarify and that came along with several other stresses in his life. I realize I was a handy enough target to be on the receiving end of all that stress and anger. I also realize that if he had taken time to become at least a bit mindfully aware of his words he could have changed his reaction to a response and the conversation would have been much different.

Maybe it would have gone something like this.

Happy Birthday! I want to say that first, but the real reason I called was because I need your help. Family Member has this, this and this going on. Her needs are this, this and this and I don’t think they are being met. Here’s what I think will help. Can you do any of this? 

My affirmative response would have brought some more details and we would have agreed to talk again in a week to find out how it was going. The conversation would have left us both feeling positive and even empowered because we would be taking action as a team.

Instead, it was a verbal attack and I do not feel like a part of his team at all. I don’t want to be around him. I wish him the best and keep him and all of my family members in my prayers nightly. But closer association? No, thanks.

Because that’s the thing with reacting. He reacted in anger and said things he can’t erase. He could apologize and start over. How easy is that for any of us to do? Not easy, and few people choose that path. Knowing that, I immediately offered an apology for anything I might have said or done that brought him to such anger. Was it my first instinct to do so? Nope. My first instinct was to think of a juicy handful of verbal attacks to throw back at him. My first instinct was to react, not to respond.

Luckily I have read and meditated and prayed a lot about this over the past year and I know very well the hurt you can inflict with a reaction. Putting it into practice was hard. Bleh. Really hard. Am I glad I did? Yes. Do I still have thoughts of what I could have said go through my mind? Yes. I put them aside. Okay, sometimes I nod in recognition of a particularly good one, and then I put it aside.

I don’t know what the outcome will be here. But I do know, from this experience, just how important it is to be aware of what you are saying and why and to consider the greater good of your message. What do you really want to convey? How can you do that? What is the value of reacting or responding?

Words are thrown out quickly in a reaction, wrapped in the emotion that sends them. They wound their target and while the words seemingly melt away as days pass, the hurt remains. Maybe in some cases that is the goal.

It shouldn’t be.

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One Response to React or respond?

  1. Laurel says:

    Lori, you are SUCH a better person than I. Reacting would have been my first instinct, especially when attacked unfairly. You have given this grasshopper much to think about. Thank you.

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