It is often implied or stated directly in a variety of quotes and examples, that it isn’t the circumstances of our life that have the most effect on us, but our response to those circumstances. Along these lines, author Steven Covey has been quoted as saying, “I am not a product of my circumstances, but of my decisions.” A response is definitely a decision to take action or not.
People respond to both good and bad things that happen to them in a range of ways. We can laugh at our own mistakes, correct them, compensate for them, or on the flip side, deal with them emotionally, angrily, or dejectedly. This morning, my apologies were not enough for being late. I called on my way to the church to ask if I could pick up anything. They gave me the task of getting the pizza and donuts…. Something the kids would really be looking forward to and a job that made me feel useful, not late! So when I finally arrived at the church I had food in hand, and my tardiness was less conspicuous and in some part rectified. I don’t think I’ve worked harder at one of these breakfasts than this morning. I’m sure my own guilt was playing into that (because I pride myself on being dependable), but it also gave me an opportunity to share with the students that sometimes we have “oops” moments or obstacles that we must overcome whether it’s during their assessments or in other parts of our lives. Our response makes all the difference. In the end, learning from those mistakes and putting forth our best effort is what matters and will define us rather than the mistake we made or obstacle we faced.
There are countless stories of people who have lived through troubled childhoods, tragedy, or suffered from illness or injury to overcome these challenges and lead productive lives; while others use these circumstances as a crutch for their current state. There are those who seem to have it all, and yet find themselves unhappy or unsuccessful. We each have scenarios that play out in ways that move us forward or potentially can hold us back. Our circumstances are sometimes out of our control, but how we respond to the things that we experience are very much in our control. We can take the talents we have or the successes we experience and use them for the greater good. We can choose to look on the bright side of things, finding ways to turn lemons into lemonade, or not. We can choose to use the challenges we face to give us additional resolve that not only lift us from these trials, but inspire others as well. We can even make meaning out of the senseless and leave a legacy of hope and change.
In my years of teaching Psychology, we often talked about the “fight or flight” response. Do we hang in there and find ways to resolve the issues at hand or do we choose to run away? Fight is about perseverance and the willingness to do the work that needs to be done to rectify the situation, but does not usually actually involve punching someone. Flight may not literally be fleeing the situation, but may include avoidance behaviors that keep us from dealing with the situation at hand or moving forward. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl notes, “Between the stimulus and the response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When we choose not to decide or act, we have indeed made a decision. Fear or dread may keep us from acting. Withdrawal may seem less risky at the time, but probably puts us more at risk for future problems we might not be anticipating.
Our response need not be immediate to be effective. When we consider our options and the subsequent consequences of potential actions, we are indeed acting. But it is important to communicate that you are in the consideration process so others aren’t left hanging in limbo. When my brother went in for a medical test and a possible procedure last week, the outcome wasn’t what he or the doctors had anticipated. So they took the time to do additional tests and determine the best course of action. It was helpful that they gave us a tentative time line so we would know when to expect a response. The time spent evaluating the data and discussing options can make us feel anxious or impatient or both, but it is time well spent so that we respond in the most appropriate way.
There are also those times that no response or a delayed response is the best course of action. To intentionally not respond is different than just failing to respond. Not answering when called or if someone texts you are examples of failing to respond. It may be because you were busy at the time or forgot, but it may take on a different meaning for the other person as time passes with no response. Delaying a response may be an appropriate strategy. “I’ll get back to you,” or “Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” help people know of your intention to respond but not to expect one right now. When we are angry, it’s often best to step back and not respond until we’ve had time to think. Emotional reactions may get us in trouble with words or actions we can’t take back. Just as you cannot “un-throw” a stone, you cannot fully take back hurtful words or vengeful actions. Sometimes walking away is the hardest response, but the most powerful one too.
I like the metaphor of “learning which sword to fall on.” I am a fixer, so over the years I have had to learn that I do not have to have the solution to every problem, particularly those where I cannot control the situation or outcome. Not all actions require us to address them. Some are just none of our business or don’t really amount to as much as we would make of them. Sometimes the attention we give to a person or situation actually rewards the undesired behavior we are trying to correct, so ignoring a behavior might be the best course of action.
Bob Proctor has been quoted as saying, “When you react you are giving away power. When you respond, you are staying in control of yourself.”
Reacting is somewhat different than responding. In sports, we teach athletes to react because they don’t have time to think in certain scenarios. But in reality we are teaching them to respond without thinking by practicing the skills and strategies they might use during those potential situations until they become automatic. Responding involves conscious decision making and preparation. It involves purpose and making decisions with a specific goal in mind. In the NCAA National Championship basketball game earlier this week, Villanova responded to the North Carolina shot that tied the game with 4.7 seconds left by running a play they practice every day. And it worked to give them the win. Had they not been prepared, they might have reacted differently rather than responding with a strategy they were prepared to successfully use.
“Response” is a significant part of the word "responsible" and translates to “response + able.” Again quoting Steven Covey, “We have the freedom to choose our response to a situation.” Perhaps we should each consider the impact of our responses before we make them (As my mother used to say “Think before you speak.”) and reflect on their results after we respond. “ResponseAble” thoughts and behaviors will improve our effectiveness, and help us leave a more positive impact on our own life and those around us so that we can ultimately be defined by our decisions and not our circumstances.