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Do You React or Respond to Life?

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Do You React or Respond to Life?

By Paul Coutinho, SJ

Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, shares an experience that he once had while traveling on the New York subway. Imagine you are riding the subway early one morning, and everybody appears to be comfortable -- people are drinking their coffee, reading their newspapers and magazines, working on their laptops, talking on their cell phones. Everything is normal and peaceful. At each station, a few people get off, a few people get on, everything is calm and sedate, until the train stops at a particular station and a man walks onto your train car with his little children. He finds seats for them and then sits down in a reflective mood. While he is in deep meditation, the children begin to run up and down the aisle, screaming and shouting, running all over the train car.

How do you feel? Are you mad at the man? Why are you mad? You are perhaps thinking, This man should take care of his children in public. If he does not know how to take care of children, why did he have them in the first place! Are you mad at the children for making so much noise? Spoiled kids! you might think. You notice there is no mother. Now you might be thinking, I bet the mother left this man with these undisciplined children. See yourself going up to this irresponsible father and confronting him, saying, "Excuse me, sir, would you mind tending to your children? They're being so disruptive, and I think everybody is getting a little upset." The man looks up at you and says, "Two hours ago these children lost their mother in the hospital. She just died, and ever since then I have been trying to explain to them the death of their mother, and their only reaction is this."

Now how do you feel? The children are still jumping up and down, screaming and shouting. But now you feel terrible. You feel guilty. You feel sorry for the man, you feel sorry for the children, and you feel bad about their mother. You might even feel upset with yourself for feeling negatively about the father and his children.

I give you this example to demonstrate the power of our beliefs. Emotions are not caused by situations. Emotions are caused by our beliefs about situations, beliefs that color our perception and our understanding of events. In this example, the children are still jumping up and down and shouting, but some of us have moved from being upset to feeling sad, compassionate, and concerned. Others may still feel angry, because they believe that children should always behave in public. Beliefs cause emotions that trigger behavior. If we feel angry about a situation and react in anger, it is because we have angry beliefs about it. If we feel compassionate, it is because we have compassionate beliefs.

Situations in themselves do not produce feelings. It is our perception of the situation that makes us feel good or bad. Just as situations cannot make us happy or sad, another person cannot make us feel happy or sad. We choose to be happy or sad. If we seek greater freedom in our lives, we need to be objective and rational about the power of our beliefs versus the power of situations. We control our emotions. When we live in freedom, we choose the way we respond rather than let our automatic destructive reactions get the better of us.

Now you might ask, "Okay, but how do I do this? How do I choose to respond when I am under pressure, when I have been taught to fear or fight, when the situation seems 'bad' to me?" The "PQR formula" can help us live freely in stressful, anxious, or depressing situations. We pause to question how we would like to respond rather than react and live to regret our negative reaction. Let me try to explain what I mean by react: You push; I shove. Without thinking, I shove. This is my reaction. It is immediate and disconnected from my higher Self, the constant "I," and the meaning of my life. My reaction is an imprisoned effect. This is not freedom. By applying the PQR formula, however, I can respond. I pause (find myself in the situation), question (How does this situation relate to the meaning of my life? How do I wish to respond given a world of infinite possibilities?), and then respond (a freely chosen action -- not a reaction). Responding rather than reacting helps us live freely and in greater harmony with our true identity in every situation. It helps us grab hold of the freedom we seek in order to enter into the river of divine life.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Coutinho, SJ

Fr. Paul Coutinho, SJ is an internationally recognized Ignatian scholar and speaker who brings an Eastern influence to Western spirituality. A Jesuit from the Bombay province of India, he frequently leads retreats, gives spiritual direction, and trains people to lead the Spiritual Exercises. Fr. Coutinho holds masters degrees in both clinical psychology and religious studies, and he has a doctorate in historical theology from Saint Louis University. He currently divides his time between India and the United States.

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