During this last election cycle and in the months since the Inauguration, I have been thinking a lot about reaction versus response. We are asked continually to react and/or respond–to real or fake news, to what our friends post on the various social media platforms, and to a bombardment of issues coming from all different directions. If that wasn’t enough, we are also continually asked to react/respond–to family members, colleagues, situations at work, medical diagnoses, dysfunctional situations and people, and our own internal goings-ons.

It is all coming so hard and fast these days. Regardless of your political views or affiliations, the particularities of your own situation in life, the dizzying array of external issues and opportunities for engagement cropping up on a daily basis feels a bit like a tsunami. And I’m guessing your plate is full in your own personal list of things requiring some form of response and attention.

Almost everyone I talk to, from whatever side of the aisle and whatever else is going on in their lives, is wrestling with how to respond. What to do? What to do? How to be human in such a time as this, let alone any other type of designation you might have? What does it mean or look like to be a citizen? What does love look like? Justice? What does it look like to stand for what is right and against that which is unjust or just plain wrong? What does it mean to remain sane and balanced in this crazy atmosphere of global anxiety and fear? What does it mean to let that family member not continue to control the narrative?

Many of us are struggling to listen and to hear. To interpret the signs of the times wisely and well. To respond in a way that is authentic and true to what we believe and value–not just shoot from the hip (well, not all are concerned about a deep response. There are a fair shake of folks who seem to like shooting from the hip). And many of us are floundering in this. It seems easier to try and shut it all out, ignore it, hope for the best–again, both on a broader communal scale as well as a personal one.

It is so darn hard not to just react, isn’t it? In my current assessment, this is what most of us are doing, myself included. We are REACTING. Many of us are reacting often in some way to POTUS’ tweets, news stories, or Twitter and Facebook posts. Many of us let that same family member continue to get under our skin. But my deeper question is–how can we move from reaction to deep and helpful response?

How can we be people who assist and help transform that which needs to be transformed rather than those who instead just transmit what is needing transformation?

What is the difference between reaction and response? According to Websters, to react is “to return an impulse or impression.” A reaction fires off an immediate impulse or impression. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I usually have a pretty strong verbal message that comes out. I don’t think. I impulsively react, often using the more colorful words in my vocabulary. Riding recently with my daughter who was driving competently in LA traffic, I realized I had passed on this “way of being in the car.” She’s got the verbal reaction thing down like her mom. Interestingly enough, Macmillan Dictionary goes so far as to list adverbs that are frequently used with react. Look at this list: adversely, angrily, badly, unfavorably, violently. The implication is that reactions will be negative in some way.

In contrast, to respond is “to answer or reply” or, more expressively, to reply to something “by taking a particular course of action” or to reply “by doing what is needed, appropriate or right for a particular situation” (Macmillan Dictionary).

Here’s a bit of what I know about how responding is different from reacting:

  1. Responding takes longer. Space is needed from the trigger. As a parent, I learned early on that my initial reaction to something my kids do is often not the best or what is most needed or helpful. My reactions often compounded the problem and issues. My responses sought to address the problem and issues, bringing in understanding, air and room for growth.
  2. Our responses are most often born out of our deep places–our deep beliefs, convictions, values, and needs. Our reactions are usually from our trigger points: our insecurities, fears, wounds, hurts, painful places, bias’ or prejudices.
  3. Responding requires a different skill set than reacting. We must pay attention to data/conditions it is easy to overlook if one is merely reacting. Let’s see if I can’t help open up what this can mean.

I confess I have never actually made it through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ve tried. I have. And I plan to try again. But for now I am reliant on my uncle, Eugene Peterson’s read of Melville and his source material in the perface of his book, Forces Concealed in Quiet for the following. Apparently, in the book, there is a tumultuous scene where a whale boat is fast and hard in pursuit of Moby Dick, the great white whale. The sailors at oar are fiercely bent upon their task, every muscle straining and working in the quest to catch this whale.

But in the boat, one man does nothing (or appears to be doing nothing). He is not cursing or laboring. He does not have an oar. Rather, he holds a harpoon and is quiet, attentive, poised. And then this: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness and not from out of toil.” 


Picture from avidly.org and an article by Jake Bartolone: “A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick Episode 2”

As I have thought on this, it resonates. John Oman has coined what he calls “twin perils” and they are “flurry and worry” (again, thanks Uncle Gene!). When we react to something, often it is out of flurry or worry. But what if we could be more like a harpoonist than an oarsman, rising to throw our harpoon out of calm and quiet, hitting the target, not missing the mark? Yes, oarsman are needed. But right now, I think we need more harpoonists. If we are thinking in terms of social justice, Brian Zahnd says it this way, “Social justice from a non-contemplative stance is unsustainable. It’s reactive. It will drain you and you will burn out.”

Martha Beck also brings to awareness another picture that is enlightening. In her book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, she highlights those whom anthropologist Wade Davis termed “wayfinders”–those navigators from long ago who first discovered the Pacific Islands. These navigators left Indonesia in canoe-like boats and guided these boats across huge expanses of open water to islands so small they were truly like needles in a haystack. They did this without any navigational equipment. Beck says that wayfinders, as babies, were placed to sit for hours in the ocean where they learned to listen to and read the water and the currents. Davis writes in his book Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, that wayfinders (a few of whom still exist) can “read” the ocean so sensitively that they recognize the refractive wave patterns of island chains hundreds of miles away by watching ocean swells break against the hull of their canoes.

Wow! Right? Beck and Davis argue that we need more wayfinders–those who can sensitively discern how to navigate uncharted waters to landfall. In other words, we need those who respond to the currents, to the nuances of the waves,  who are able to read what is needed to get us where we want to go. Reaction won’t get us to landfall. It will most likely keep us lost at sea.

Harpoonists. Wayfinders. Those who are not caught up in flurry and worry but who rise up out of quiet contemplation and assessment.

To recap: responding is different than reacting. It requires something other and more than a mere reaction.

So, you say, what can help us respond versus react? Here’s a few of the things I’ve come up with as I’ve played with this. I’m sure it is not a complete list. I’ll be adding to it. These things help us respond versus react:

  1. Quiet. Solitude. Silence. Full stop. Time to think for ourselves without any other voices or input. There is no substitute for this. Time in meditation and/or prayer. We must be quiet to read the currents. A quote by Mark Nepo comes to mind here: “I’ve worked hard to give up attaining a place ordained by others in the world, for this always leads me into noise, confusion, and gruffness.” We must find our work for ourselves. We have to get quiet to do this.
    One of the places I go to get quiet-Flathead Lake in Montana. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be clear like this?

    One of the places I go to get quiet-Flathead Lake in Montana. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be clear like this water?


  2. Whatever nourishes us and fills us up. When we are filled, we can be emptied. We have something to give.
  3. A sense of humor. This is invaluable.
  4. Being educated, informed. Reading widely. We do not know it all. We do not even know most of it. And we should be suspicious of what shows up on our various social media feeds. Algorithms often control the kinds of information we see. From these sources, we generally see limited slices of information geared toward our already-biases and views.
  5. Seeking to listen and realizing we may not have it all put together correctly. At the very least, acknowledging our biases/privilege/limits of our experience to the best of our ability.
  6. Self-knowledge and work on ourselves. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has a profound statement: “If we do not transform our pain, we transmit it.” We need to be people who are doing our own inner work, even if it is excruciatingly difficult. There are helpers out there who can help us with this work, and believe me, if you do this kind of work, you will need them. But let me encourage you–your inner work will have profound impact on how you are able to be in the world. Those who have wrestled with their own darkness, wounds, pain and shadow, are able to stand in the presence of dark and not be afraid. They can respond instead of just react.
  7. Letting who we are, who we’ve been, how we’re wired, shape what we do and refusing to be shamed into responding (or reacting) in a way that is not true to our own selves. This is not to say we should not step out of our comfort zones or that we should not stretch ourselves. But shame or pressure from others should not be our motivation for what we do. Our response should be borne out of who we are and what we value.
  8. Confession. This seems an odd one on the list and it shows my theological training. We need to confess our own part in things. There’s a bit of a puzzler in scripture: Confess your sins that you may be healed. Recognizing our part in the brokenness of things shifts the gears, allowing us to respond truthfully and honestly to that which is broken and in need of healing. We are no longer on the outside of the problem–we are inside of it and see that to move out of it, we’ve got to take some steps.
  9. Community. It is hard to go it alone. It really helps to have those who see you, know you, can support you as you do your part. We all need our Samwise Gamgee (Frodo’s steadfast companion in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

If we want to learn to respond instead of just react, I believe there is guidance. I believe there is assistance when we want to respond well to whatever life throws our way. And I believe we can respond in ways that will be transformative–in ways that will open things up instead of shut things down. In ways that will heal instead of hurt, bring hope instead of fear.

But we must be willing and ready to do the work required in response. Ann Voskamp queries in her book, The Broken Way, “Where are the people ready to do hard and holy things?” Or, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

I hope we are sitting in the water, reading the currents, then getting in canoes, helping others find the way. I hope we are sitting quietly with harpoons, attentive to the moment when we must rise to our feet and throw with all of our strength and skill. I hope we are doing all of the things I listed above so that we can respond from deep, healthy and whole places, offering wisdom, strength, courage, kindness, hope and love.

We can do this, people. We can do hard things. We can do holy things. We can transform fear into faith, into fuel. We can be kind. And if we are kind, I’m betting we can figure out how to be brave. We can learn to be the harpoonists of the world-where when we rise, we are able to hit the mark. We can find the way and help others find theirs.

Peace and hope to all of you.