One of the central realities in all of life is the relationship between stimulus and response. When I touch a hot skillet, my hand draws back, almost unconsciously. When I step on a tack I yell, and my foot rises rapidly from the floor. When I am driving, and someone swerves into my lane or an animal darts out in front of me, I immediately react. These things are true of the animal kingdom, and seem to be true also of plants, which react to changes of light, air pressure, temperature or moisture. When we as humans lack the ability to experience the stimulus, then physicians tell us we have neuropathy of some kind. When we overreact to the incoming stimulus, then people say we are immature. When we lack the ability to respond to stimuli when we do experience them then we are depressed, withdrawn, catatonic or comatose.
So, our goal should be to develop our capacity to respond appropriately to the stimulus that we do experience in our lives. Some have drawn a distinction between reacting and responding – reaction is involuntary and spontaneous, response is controlled and thoughtful. OK, fine, you say, but what can I do to move toward mature response from immature reaction?
One of the keys is to recognize that between every stimulus and response there is a space. If we are startled, or we are a toddler, then the space is infinitesimally small – a nanosecond at most. But when we grow up and put away childish things, we are to move toward a way of living and relating where that space grows. You may remember a cartoon where the child or husband does or says something, to which the mother/wife responds by counting to ten. That is entirely about placing a space between stimulus and response. We also know people who have developed a habit of leaving a situation temporarily while they ‘take time to cool off.’ This is certainly helpful, and to be preferred over reacting in the moment.
If we do nothing more than count to ten or take a walk, then we often stay in the same upset state. What we want to do is find transformation of our thoughts and feelings so that our response can be mature, reasoned, appropriate, faithful.
What I suggest is that, once we become able to stop, even for a moment, after the stimulus, then we pray the pause. Fill that space not with numbers or footsteps only, but with prayer, prayer for self, for the others involved, for God’s will, glory and kingdom. Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies. It may be harsh to consider everyone who upsets or offends or startles us as an enemy, but for our purposes here it works, because we are feeling adversarial, and the overall situation is certainly an enemy to our ability to be mature.
So, if anxiety and adrenaline stir in us when someone says or does something, then we can pray that God would bless that person and help them to grow in faith, hope and love. We do not pray, “God help them to see that I am right.” Such a prayer continues to keep us in a place of feeling superior – such arrogance will only undermine our efforts to reason and respond maturely.
Pray the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Pray the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, fill me with your love. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, use me for your glory, help me build your kingdom, etc.
Pray the Kyrie – Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Pray the 23rd Psalm – The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Pray what’s on your mind… What is your frustration – name it. With whom are you upset – name them. What are your fears, worries, anxieties – name them. In several of the healing miracles, Jesus asks the name of the demons. Recovery work in AA, NA and other programs have demonstrated the power of naming our demons – saying it out loud gives us power and deflates the secret which can take hold of us. The Psalms show us that, if we are humble and open, we can say anything to God in prayer. Sometimes we need to pray… “Lord, give me the desire to forgive. I want to want that,” because we really want to lash out, and we need God’s help to do otherwise.
As you work on this, keep in mind that between every stimulus and response, there is a space. Maturing includes developing the capacity to increase and use that space appropriately – enabling us to choose how we will respond.
For instance, many time have I heard someone say, “She made me so mad.” If the speaker is someone I know I often stop them right there and say, “Why did you give her that kind of power?”
For further study…
This idea of a space between stimulus and response is found many places, but my understanding is drawn largely from Family Systems Theory – Rabbi Edwin Friedman, derived from Bowen Theory developed by Dr Murray Bowen, and the work of Dr. Roberta Gilbert who has popularized and clarified Bowen Theory. For more information about their work, see:
We have a good collection of Family Systems books at church if you want to go deeper.
And as always, please let me know if you want to discuss any of this.