Pause, and think, before you react

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

I guess I had an odd relationship with my first wife, although it lasted 27 years until her death, so it wasn’t all bad by any means, just a bit odd.

She, of stout Presbyterian stuff, was solid, reliable, steady. I, on the other hand, was always testing what I believed (still am), questioning things, searching, in perpetual pursuit of elusive nuggets of truth. A bit like my old friend Tony Campolo, who as Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, was able to reduce sociology down to two words: ‘Says who?’ I surely wasn’t the easiest person in the world to live with.

There was one occasion – funny now when I think back – when the poor wee soul must have been at her wits’ end. She bought me a book, I’m sure I still have it somewhere on my bookshelves, groaning under the weight of half-a-lifetime’s collection. The little book, by Evelyn Carol Christenson, was entitled, ‘Lord, Change Me.’

The funny side of it was that the whole point of the book was to encourage its readers to pray that prayer: Change me! rather than smugly, and perhaps self righteously plead for God to change others. Did she think she didn’t need to be changed? And if our relationship was to improve, was I the one to do all the changing? I’m still not sure, over 20 years later, but I do suspect that she found the unsettledness in my personality, the constant inability to accept things as they are, utterly frustrating, and the reason for my suspicions is that I am having much the same difficulty with my present sweet and tolerant wife.

At times I silently fume and cry out to God, ‘Why does she have to be like this? Why can’t she be more like....?’ – and yes, I was indeed about to say, ‘Why can’t she be more like me?’ Isn’t that just a tad arrogant, but maybe we’re all a little like that – or is it just me? But be honest now, when we are offended, or angered by a work colleague, or a family member or friend, is it not our default position to inwardly, if not outwardly howl, ‘Dear God, would you ever sort that guy out!?’

The obvious conclusion is that when we feel the red mist descend, and the steam comes out our ears, that’s how we’re reacting, but it is stressful, and stress shortens your life. The way I want to respond, the stress-free way, is the ‘mindfulness’ approach: pause, take a step back and ask myself, ‘Why am I reacting like this? Is what this individual is saying or doing stirring something in me that I need to deal with?’

I’m not suggesting that we become a community of navel-gazers, introverted to the point of being no use to man or beast, but for our default position to shift from, ‘It’s always the other person’s fault’, to ‘Maybe I need to do some changing’ gives a wonderful opportunity to see the situation from the other’s point of view, to relieve stress and reduce conflict. It helps us comprehend that we know nothing of the personal battles being waged, and that all that individual might need is a little understanding.

What is that old proverb? A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. Easier said than done, but it’s work in progress.

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