Impulsive, thoughtless, careless, yelling, screaming, name calling, avoidance behavior, anger, resentment, irritation, anxiety, stressful and uncontrolled are words that belong to reactive thinking. Words that describe responsive thinking are deliberate, thoughtful, creative, careful, intelligent, responsible, peaceful and controlled. These two very opposite ways of thinking get started very early in our thinking and continue all the way through our lives. Reactive thinking contributes to dysfunctional behavioral patterns that perpetuate stress and anxiety. On the other hand, responsive thinking contributes to optimum behavioral patterns that promote peaceful and enjoyable relationships.
An episode from David’s life demonstrates both patterns. David and his men are in the Desert of Maon, and while they are there, they provide protection for the shepherds of a wealthy man named Nabal. It was not uncommon for attacking tribes to attack and take what they wanted from a herd. This, however, had not happened on David’s watch. Since David and his men provided this service, they expected to be recompensed in some way. That’s why David sent his men to Nabal.
Nabal’s foolish, reactive response is one of resentment: When David's men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David's name. Then they waited. Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?" (1 Sam 25:9)
David also demonstrates reactive thinking with his anger: David's men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. David said to his men, "Put on your swords!" So they put on their swords, and David put on his. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies (1 Sam 25:12).
This is the same man who recently had the chance to kill Saul, but refused to do so. He demonstrated enormous patience and self-control, even persuading his men of the rightness of his actions. However, now look at David as he is in reactive mode.
Alan Redpath writes about this moment:
David! David! What is wrong with you? Why, one of the most wonderful things we have learned about you recently is your patience with Saul. You learned to wait upon the Lord, you refused to lift you hand to touch the Lord’s anointed, although he had been your enemy for so many years. But now, look at you! Your self-restraint has gone to pieces and a few insulting words from a fool of a man like Nabal has made you see red! David, what’s the matter? “I am justified in doing this,” David would reply. “There is no reason why Nabal should treat me as he has. He has repaid all my kindness with insults. I will show him he can’t trifle with me. It is one thing to take it from Saul, who is my superior at this point, but this sort of man—this highhanded individual must be taught a lesson!”[i]
Abigail, Nabal’s wife, is, however, responsive in her thinking. She quickly prepares to go and meet with David before tragedy strikes. She takes food and drink as gifts for David’s men. She is calm and thoughtful in her actions. It is completely the opposite of what David is doing at this moment. There is no thinking going on with David—he is like a ricocheted bullet that is bouncing off objects. He is in total reactionary mode and not thinking about his decisions. If David proceeds, he will act in his temporary insanity, and then after all is over, he will come to see what he has done, and only then will he perceive the consequences of his actions. Abigail, however, is able to imagine the consequences before they are enacted and choose a different course of action.
When Abigail encounters David and his men, she doesn’t make excuses, instead she accepts responsibility for what has happened, and she offers to rectify what has been done. She is thoughtful, tactful and courteous, and she demonstrates great faith. She accepts the blame for something she had nothing to do with. She deliberately takes responsibility for the situation. She says, “If I had talked to those young men you sent they would have been sent back in a different way. I’m sorry they were dealt with that way.” She confidently responds with cogent thoughts and articulate words that change David’s mind.
Anger will not subside until someone is willing to accept responsibility for what happened by offering hope that things can be different and willing to make meaningful apologies. Abigail regrets what has happened in the past but makes assurances that she will do something about the present. This is what it takes to diffuse the anger in an angry person. This is an example of responsive thinking and acting.
In all our interpersonal relationships we can be reactive or responsive. Don’t doubt it. It is a choice for each of us. One brings harm and hurt, and the other healing and meaning. Whether it is in marriage, parenting, or workplace relationships, let us strive for responsive thinking and acting.