Act vs React

Action, reaction … schmreaction. Pft. Who cares?

Actually, I do. Why? Not because I think there’s a thing you *ahem* should or should not be doing, but because I actually care about your personal happiness. I know, sounds weird, right? I mean, wouldn’t the logical assumption be that I’m blogging all this because I like reading myself think? Actually, no, not at all. Believe me, I wouldn’t pay a site to host a blog just for that purpose! So why do I care about your personal happiness? Simple! The happier you are, the happier the people around you will be. The happier they are, the happier the people around them will be … and so on and so forth, until one day this big ol’ world is full of happy people! Ok, yeah, it’s a long-term goal, but it means the same thing — I do care about your personal happiness. As always, if something I can offer up can help you achieve your own personal happiness? Yay!

Per our quote above, we’re given the opinion that sometimes, actual action is more difficult than reaction. That’s one of the first things I want to point out; yes, action usually is more difficult: less satisfying; more complex: less sure; than simple reaction. Why is that? Hopefully, that’s what we’ll discover in this next bit of blatherings!

So, to begin — hey! No definitions today! Instead, you’re going to get Isende-speak for what I mean by “Action” and “Reaction.”

Reaction: Allowing a person, situation, event, or other external stimulus to dictate how you behave

Action: Owning responsibility for our behavior, regardless of a person, situation, event, or other external stimulus

Right there, I think you’ll see what I consider the primary difference between the two; in action, we assume responsibility for what we do. We don’t fob it off on someone else — “See what you made me do?” We don’t try to tell ourselves, or others, that we “had no choice.” We step up to the plate, consider our options, then choose one that seems to have the best ability to meet the needs on-hand. That’s it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Someone who’s stuck in “react” mode, however, will blame others. They will refuse to accept culpability for their responses. They will, also, repeat the behavior over and over and over … because until you decide to own your behavior, you are stuck in a bad cycle, and bad cycles repeat until we overcome them. Period.

To give this personal meaning, I’m going to fall back on what I did with the Choices posts; I’m going to offer up some scenarios, then deconstruct them. Here goes!

Scenarios: Action vs. Reaction

I thought about using fake scenarios again, but you know what they say — sometimes life is stranger than fiction! So today, we use my life experiences.

First one: I was 17 and living with a friend, just before I married my first husband. My friend had her sister living with us; Sister was about five months pregnant at the time. We were all young, all smoked. Sister also drank nothing but coffee all day, and she especially chain-smoked. One day, my friend decided that Sister needed exercise, and the only way she could convince Sister to get exercise was to refuse to go buy her cigarettes. The store was in walking distance, and my friend thought that if Sister had to go to the store at least once a day, she’d get some exercise, and be less likely to lose her baby. I mean, this girl literally sat in the middle of the couch, chain-smoking and drinking coffee all day. Not good.

Sister ran out of smokes. Asked my friend to run to the store. My friend refused. An argument ensued, and quickly escalated to physical violence. In short, Sister was attempting to beat the crap outta my friend, and my friend was afraid to fight back. I mean, pregnant lady, right? I looked, observed, thought, then decided. I also didn’t want to hurt her or the baby, but I needed this to deescalate. So, I stuck my arm between them, grabbed Sister by her hair and backed her against a wall. The intention was to hold her there until she calmed down; however. Arm in front of face = something to bite. Yep, to this day, I have a lovely circular bite mark on my forearm.

Right then and there, what do you think I wanted to do? I actually had visions of slamming her head back into the wall a couple of times. I mean, it HURT! But … pregnant lady. Baby. So I kept her teeth in my arm and slowly pushed her down until she was kneeling on the floor, where I held her. She eventually let go of my arm, then calmed down. Discussion ensued, blah blah blah, and I had to go into the hospital to get the bite seen about.

Why is this a good scenario to share? Because Sister lost the baby a couple of weeks later. I know, now, absolutely, that I did nothing to contribute to the loss. I know that for a fact. I can live with that. If I’d reacted; if I’d slammed her head back into the wall; if I’d done any of the seemingly-satisfying things I wanted to do, I’d have had to live with wondering, for the rest of my life, if I’d caused the miscarriage.

Second scenario: My now-husband, we’ll call him Beloved, used to be notoriously bad about managing money. When we met, he was in the habit of regularly taking cash advances, through his bank, against future paychecks. This allowed him to live as though he had more money than he had, but it didn’t really accommodate emergencies, savings, or any of the other little things I find very important. After he got us completely upside-down one month — not enough money in the paycheck to cover the advances; advance-fees piling up; bills due; electricity cut off — I had a choice to act or react. Reaction with me would have had me demanding that he never do this again, or berating him for being so poor with money management, or anything along those lines. But rather than deal with it immediately (once he got the electricity turned back on) I chose to think about it. To begin, what was my gut-level, visceral response to this?

Anger. Pure and simple, I was angry. He wanted me to commit to a life with him, but he wasn’t able to manage money, and having been homeless twice, money-management was very important to me. Then, I had to think about the anger. Was the anger justified? I felt it was, yes. Was expression of my anger justified? Within reason, I felt. What, then, actions should I take to express my anger, but not completely destroy the relationship? I mean, eight years later, I’m exceedingly glad I didn’t just react, but back then, I had no idea how wonderful our life together would become. Honestly, throwing in the towel and removing myself from the situation was high up on my priority list. But! I persevered! I thought it through, and decided to have a talk with him. I explained to him that money management was a verybigdeal to me, and that I needed to be able to rely on him. I asked him to promise me he would never again take an advance without discussing it with me. He gave me his word.

Which he then broke, three times, to be exact. We were even worse upside-down than we had been previously. I’d just had surgery to replace my ankle, and I was sitting down figuring out how we’d pay off our doctor’s bills … when he dropped the bombshell that we had no money to pay the bills, because he’d … um … taken advances again and um … well, we didn’t have money.

I was livid. Heck, livid doesn’t even begin to explain it. I remember distinctly popping up off the couch (one foot still in the cast, lol!), grabbing my bag & the car keys and leaving the house. I was terrified if I didn’t words would roll off my tongue and across my lips that I’d regret. I left the house for a while, and got things sorted out in my mind. Interestingly, this time, I was more angry about the broken promise than I was about the money!

Once I got myself under control, I came back, we sat down again, and talked again. I had decided there was only one course of action available to me, and that was to offer him some options. I could create a spreadsheet/budget, and teach him to use it so this wouldn’t happen again. I could even do the budget with him. Or I could manage all the money myself (which I didn’t want to do, considering the debacle brought about in my second marriage). Or, and this was the painful one, I could leave, and he could live his life however he wanted. The one condition I made absolutely clear was that, under no circumstances, would I tolerate his ever again breaking his word to me.

That situation ended up (obviously!) working out; he worked with me to learn the budget, then he began using it every Saturday morning to balance monies, so we both always know exactly where we stand (still broke, but at least not upside down!). Now, it’s just a routine part of his Saturday mornings, and I have learned to be able to rely on him to know where our money is, when we can spend, when we can’t, and how we’re looking months in advance. But think of how it could have ended up! If I’d simply reacted, the first time, to what he’d done, I’d have chewed him out, undermined his sense of self, and probably left the relationship. If I’d simply reacted the second time this happened, same results. We, as we exist now, wouldn’t exist.

Now, I’ll admit this. At the time, all I really wanted to do was tear him a new arse-hole. It would have been gloriously satisfying to give vent to my anger, fear, frustration. It would have been brilliant, for all of about two minutes, to lay into him with everything I had and completely demolish him. I won’t ever deny that. You see, that’s the lure of reacting. It allows us, momentarily, to disregard the fear, the frustration, the angst of actually dealing with the situation. It allows us to blame the other person, wholly and completely, for anything that happens from this point forward. You didn’t want to manage the money, so we’re broke? Fine. I’m going to gripe and nag and berate you for all the things I can’t do because you suck. Additionally, it allows us to feel powerful, for that moment. We’re the wronged party, they’re the jerk who wronged us! Now, they have to listen to us rant and rave because they’re the one(s) who screwed up! Yes, for that brief time, we can feel very powerful.

The experience of looking back, eight or so years later, and understanding all that I would have lost if I’d taken that route gives me a strong belief that, regardless of what we’re feeling at the moment, it is almost always better to think before we act.

Caveat here — cuz ya know, we can’t have a discussion without that! There are absolutely times when it is best to react, rather than stop and think about it. First responders know this. Emergency personnel know this. Soldiers know this. Trauma survivors know this. The times I’ve been physically attacked, I’ve had to respond immediately without the benefit of sitting back, weighing options, and choosing the best course of action. Please understand that I fully separate these types of situations from the normal, day-to-day interaction that is currently rife with reaction as opposed to action.

Soooooo … what’s it all mean?

Simple. If we react, we are giving power of ourselves, over ourselves, to someone else. When Sister bit me, if I’d reacted as I had wanted to, I’d have been behaving as she expected me to. I don’t honestly know what was going through her mind, but I don’t think you start throwing swings at someone unless you expect them to swing back. I could be wrong.

If I’d reacted, if I’d bashed her head into the wall behind her, I would have been dancing to her tune, not to my own. Regardless of the consequences, at that moment, I’d have been living by a script she was writing, not one that I was writing.

Sit back and think about this, folk. This is actually a huge deal. Every time someone glares at us, cusses us, hurts us — whatever it is — and we respond as they expect, we’ve given them the ability to control us. I personally find that absolutely abhorrent.

Someone tells me I’m fat: I can laugh at them, thank them, ignore them, or get hurt about it.

Someone fires me from a job I love because I disagreed with them: I can find a gun and kill everyone on the site, or I can go find a different, better job with a different better boss; I can go back to school, change careers; I can choose to farm; I can decide to travel.

Someone wrecks my car, severely injuring me: I can sink down into depression, possibly even commit suicide; I can give in to the pain and discomfort; I can work my arse off to overcome the injuries; I can relearn what life is like post-severe-injury.

We can’t stop the initial gut-level, emotional response. At all; nor do I believe we should attempt to stop it. I think, rather, we should give ourselves time, and do some self-talk.

“Ok, this happened. How do you feel?”

“How do you think I feel? I’m bloody pissed!”

“Right, that’s good, you’re pissed. What else?”

“I’m terrified! How’m I gonna pay bills now?”

“Right, right, on the right track now! So, we need to find a new way to pay bills …”

See where I’m going with this? Yes, it falls back on the Choices thing, but with a little twist; that twist being the part about giving over control of yourself to someone else. With the Choices blogs, I mainly wanted you to become familiar with the concept that we have way more choices than we’re taught to believe we have. With this one, I want to emphasize that letting others dictate what you do, how you respond, diminishes you. I know this, I remember being this person. Yep, I had to learn & muddle my way through it, same as you!

One sidenote here. It’s always so amusing to me when I don’t respond how people expect me to. “You’re a bitch.” “Ok.” “No, seriously, you’re a total bitch.” “Ok, and? What’s your point?” Brooks Gibbs, a motivational speaker, gave the following speech at a Ted Talks, and I found it applicable here. Ostensibly, the speech is about bullying, and how to deal with it. But watch him, watch this, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean about giving power to others, and what it looks like when you keep it for yourself.

Be courageous, and choose how you will act. Step outside the mold. Give yourself permission to see what good can come from being abnormal, especially in a society that prides itself on its caustic behavior toward others.

There are actually benefits to living this way; in my case? I have the most amazing marriage to the most amazing man on the face of the earth because I accepted that I could affect a positive change in both our lives by simply offering solutions, rather than beating him about the head with a blunt object. I can live without fearing that I caused a miscarriage. So very many things I can do, without regret, because I learned to act instead of react.


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