“The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright essayist, novelist and short story writer
There’s an old Japanese tale about a belligerent samurai who challenged a Zen master to explain a mystical concept: what is the difference between heaven and hell.
“I won’t waste my time!” declared the monk. “You’re nothing but a fool!”
His honour attacked, the samurai flew into a rage, drew his sword from its sheath and, holding it to the master’s throat, yelled, “I should kill you for your insolence.”
“That,” replied the monk “is hell.”
Though aggressive and reactionary, the young samurai was not a fool. He pondered the insight, acknowledged the lesson and then, sheathing his sword, bowed to the monk.
“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”
In the above example, heaven and hell might easily be equated to responding and reacting.
The samurai reacts with anger to the insult but later responds with understanding and respect.
A sudden interjection of self-awareness. When we react, we are often swept away by the emotion of the moment.
When we respond we take in all the information, weigh the pros and cons and choose a well-considered means of dealing with the situation.
I can recall many times in the past, standing in the aftermath of my reaction and feeling regret weighing heavily upon me.
If only I had sheathed my sword before heads (figuratively) began to roll.
My poor self-esteem or lack of self-love had filled me with fear and distrust — leading me to a reactionary existence.
Until I began to work on self-esteem building and self-awareness, I was unable to recognize my reactive tendencies and do something about it.
When we view life through the window of self-awareness, we get a clearer perspective of cause and effect.
We see how our choices impact our lives, relationships, moods and behaviour.
And we see how reactionary choices often lead to fear, stress and negative consequences.
One of the greatest rewards that comes from building our self-esteem is the ability to recognize and curb our tendency to react to what life presents us with.
Reacting is something we do automatically, without thought.
Reacting unleashes a flood of emotion that overwhelms us when certain triggers are fired. Reactions by their very nature are seldom well considered. And habitual reactions are not limited solely to angry outbursts.
Other examples might include gossiping, compulsive overspending, focusing on the negative or avoiding self-responsibility.
For the sake of this piece, let’s confine our discussion to anger.
Although the concepts apply as well to any reactive behaviour, anger is a very clear example. Angry people are often frustrated people.
They flare up emotionally, react emotionally and then move on to the next crisis. I call this living in catastrophe mode.
We pay a dreadful price when we live in this reactionary manner.
Especially if — like the samurai — we choose to meet life with anger and resistance.
We must acknowledge that anger is a normal and necessary emotion. In and of itself, anger is not the issue.
However, when anger becomes our modus operandi in every situation we encounter, it swiftly becomes a fearful and destructive force.
When anger subsides, we may become filled with guilt or resentment causing further harm to our self-esteem.
To compound matters, we may become defensive and in doing so, be less likely to apologize or make amends.
“To be fair,” you might argue, “there is a time to react.” And you would be right.
Reacting is the right and natural choice in many circumstances. Seizing opportunities or snatching a child from the path of an oncoming vehicle demands an immediate, almost instinctual reaction to current circumstances.
Put another way, our “hell” is not the result of reacting when appropriate but rather, of reacting to every situation when a better option is available to us.
In contrast, when we respond to a situation, we tend to choose our words and action with care — weighing the consequences.
We are more likely to express openly how we feel, discuss issues objectively and move toward mutually beneficial solutions.
You might be surprised how — with a little practice — you can also learn to respond instantly as well as appropriately.
So, what are the benefits of reasoning out a considered response versus reactions and confrontations?
Greater peace, less stress, more positive outcomes — a release from hell.
If you’ve spent a lifetime reacting to everything, it might be prudent to ask yourself why. Do some soul-searching.
I would hazard to guess it’s because you’ve been living your life from a place of fear rather than a place of love.
If you’re frightened, you’re more likely to ramp things up and lash out rather than calm down and look for positive and grounded solutions.
That said, here are some tips that may help to rein in your reactions.
Refuse to be drawn in or manipulated. There will always be those people who know your hot buttons. And they experience great joy when pushing them. When this happens, they own you emotionally. Learning to respond is to know who the button-pushers are in your life.
Cool the waters. Stay calm.
Each time you feel yourself starting to ramp up emotionally, stop whatever it is that you’re doing, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Can this be turned into a positive experience?”
Slow down and ask questions rather than making statements.
Focus on solutions rather than problems. Events don’t have to be perceived as problems. Think of them as an opportunity to exercise self-control and practise self-awareness.
Check your expectations. Most frustration (and resulting anger) is the result of unfulfilled expectations.
What is it that you expect from others and what have you assumed to be true?
“A life of reaction is a life of slavery,” wrote Emmy-nominated, American screenwriter Rita Mae Brown, “intellectually and spiritually.”
One of the greatest secrets to prolonged happiness is remembering that it is not always about what’s happening to you; it’s more about the way you choose to respond to it.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.