How Much of Your Action is Reaction?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about action and reaction.

I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’ve been taking the time to notice the difference between them and to notice when I’m doing which.

what drives reactionIt seems to me, at least based on anecdotal evidence and the horribly skewed version of our lives that Facebook represents, that a lot of us (and I say “us”, not “you”) spend a great deal of time on reaction, meeting an event or a piece of information with exactly what Newton’s third law predicts: equal force, opposite direction. In fact, I think there may be a a modern adjustment to Newton’s law that predicts greater force in the opposite direction. We meet new information with vigorous opposition.

Before I go any further, I shall note, with great force, that I often believe that vigorous opposition is exactly appropriate. There is an awful lot going on in the world right now that deserves full force rejection and reversal. With that said (and I may be speaking only for myself), I sometimes feel as though I’m losing my non-reactive skills. Sometimes I need reminding that reacting is not always necessary and that, in fact, it can be harmful.

Let me explain a little. One of the pitfalls of being in a “helping” profession is that it is very easy to constantly slip into helping mode with everyone around you, whether they’re interested in that help or not. It is easy to become a helicopter friend. When you have a great set of tools that you know make people’s lives better, you can (without being really mindful) find yourself constantly pulling your toolbox out and seeing where that wrench is so you can help someone tighten a bolt. You may find yourself in the position of reacting to your friend or family member’s pain (hey! here’s a great thing that will pull us in the opposite direction) rather than mindfully choosing an action or no action.

We all do this, we just do it in different ways. We all react to one another – sometimes in anger, and that’s the one we recognize the most readily, but we all react. I’ve noticed that oftentimes when I react, out of help or out of anger, the reaction is ALL about me and my discomfort. I’m uncomfortable with friends and family members suffering, so I incautiously whip out some tools that might help. I’m uncomfortable when people reveal truths about the world (or THEIR truths about the world) that don’t match up with my experience or ideals, so I incautiously whip out some really great political rhetoric and a statistical study to really seal the deal. I’m uncomfortable with the stupid conflicts I hear between my children and so I incautiously intervene in a way that is designed to SHUT IT DOWN rather than help them learn how to handle conflict. When I react in these ways, it is based in my discomfort. It is based in me feeling bad and wanting to change that right now.

All of this learning is a bit of a surprise, because I thought I had this lesson down. When I revamped my professional life, I made a big move from a habit of reacting into the realm of mindful and intentional acting. My work life is pretty non-reactive. I choose what I want and need to do. I choose how and when to do it. I work hard to keep other people’s emergencies from de-railing my cherished plans. I guess I thought all of that mindfulness would just spill over into everything else. I guess I thought my personal life would morph on its own.

Yeah, not so much.

You don't have to reactAnd so I am making a pledge to myself, to continue this investigation: to continue to notice when I am acting and when I am reacting, and perhaps more importantly to notice where that reaction is coming from. Is it coming solely from my momentary discomfort rather than out of a place of a larger concern? Is my choice coming from a desire for little quiet rather than big peace? What would happen if I just sat with my discomfort? What would be revealed? What could be learned? What safe space could be created for others and for myself? What would deliberate action look like in the face of those questions?

Every action has a reaction equal in force and in the opposite direction, unless we decide it need not be so.

Where in your life could you use a little alteration of the laws of physics?

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