Creating Space Between Stimulus and Response.
Being isolated right now is weighing on us all. Our routines are out the window. Our anxieties are through the roof. Tempers are frayed. Our futures unknown. It’s just not an easy time for any of us. Pausing to remember that, for others as much as for ourselves, is an important tool to master.
Like many in the developed world, my schedule, albeit self imposed, is pretty ridiculous. I won’t bore you with the minutia of teaching, coaching, training, writing, and being a single dad of two teens, but I will share how important it is that I punch-out occasionally to ground myself. The frequency and duration of these little breaks vary depending on circumstances, but they’re necessary for the purging of mental and physical stress.
When I allow myself, remind myself, or force myself to unplug for a moment, no matter how brief, it’s always rejuvenating. It helps me refuel emotionally. It’s like a reset button. As a result, I tend to become a gentler, kinder human being. It fosters humility, so I become a more humble person; a more grounded brother and son; a more inspired teacher and friend, and most important…a more patient and understanding father. What’s that worth? It’s priceless.
That said, something happened while I was on a hot and hilly trail run the other day. An uncommon occurrence literally stopped me in my tracks. Before pulled the plug on my run, and dug in for what was bound to be an unpleasant experience, I became very aware of the tension that resides somewhere between reaction and response. I recognized just how difficult it can be to master the latter and not succumb to the prior.
19 minutes into what really needed to be a solid, uncomfortable and ego-stripping run I received a text from one of my boys.
“Dad, I’m sorry to interrupt your run, but Jeffrey is being so annoying right now! I don’t know why, but he won’t stop. He does this whenever you leave the house now. Will you please call him or text him and tell him to stop? Please?”
(Truth: This never happens. Ever. Michael and Jeffrey are absolutely best friends. They’re as respectful of each other as they are of their friends, family, and teachers.)
I was just getting into the steep and twisty single-track trails when the text came through. I was doing my best to, with an intentional spirit of proactively, digest and contemplate the concerns of our times, to talk to God, to appreciate the sun and the fresh air after being locked down for what seemed like forever. Then the message came.
I almost came unglued (also something that never happens). I clenched my jaw, closed my eyes in disbelief, and shook my head. Clenching my fists, my eyes darted back and forth, from the sky to the trail to the message on my phone, and back again. I didn’t know where this wasn’t going to lead, but it wasn’t going to be pleasant!
“Siri! Call home!” I said with a jaw so angrily that I wasn’t sure that Siri would even recognize my voice. I thought, or rather the thoughts arose, “If I can’t step away for 20 (expletive deleted) minutes without you two…blah blah blah…then things are gonna change boys! I don’t know how much more you want from me…blah blah blah…” My mind ran through every iteration of cliched-parent-response ever uttered!
Alone, on the trail, I was actually embarrassed of my own thoughts, thinking, “This just isn’t like me!” Then, as quickly as I called and just before the phone rang…I hung up.
I closed my eyes.
I took a breath.
Here’s the space. The space in time that will determine the future. I had been here before. I had practiced this moment. I knew better than to react. Never, ever react.
I calmly and from a place of compassion thought, “Wow. Poor kid. That’s really out of character for him. They’re awesome together. I wonder why he’s behaving like this?” Then came another quick pause. “Ahhhhh. No, I don’t. I don’t wonder. I get it.”
I stepped ten or twelve inches off the trail and I squatted down. My eyes gazed down at the dirt and weeds below my feet, and my heart broke. I had a completely involuntary and powerful physical response to the emotions that had overcome me in that moment. My eyes welled ups. The emotions became physically evident by the clear, visible trail the tears left as they cut through the dust sticking to the sweat on my face. I lost my breath. I also lost my anger.
My heart broke because I could put myself in Jeffrey’s shoes. I did my best to imagine what it must be like for a 12 or 14-year-old kid to go through what we’re going through right now. He misses his girlfriend. He wants to have band practice. He misses the beach and our weekly “Ok you pick!” dinner outings. He want’s to hoop it up with Michael and his high-school buddies. They want to laugh; not maniacally as uncontrolled protest of our current circumstances, but innocently. They miss their friends. They miss school. And in spite of the stoic-faces that they don each morning…and their willingness to stand tall…they’re scared. They are scared and confused.
After the pause.
I texted Michael back right away. “I’m sorry buddy. I’ll be home in 10! OK?” I didn’t text Jeffrey. I let him sit for a moment to process his behavior on his own. I let him determine his own immediate and appropriate his own self-imposed “Time Out.”
When I got home I patted Michael on the head and told him that I loved him. Then I saw Jeffrey sitting on the couch with his phone. I sat down next to him and pulled him over against me. “How are you, buddy? I missed you on my run so I thought I’d just come home early. I just wanted to be together right now. Is that cool?” He was so quiet. “Wanna watch Disney Plus or some maybe some 2Hype on YouTube?” I asked. He accepted the hug and cuddled up to me like he was four years old again. He didn’t cry, but he was hurting. I could feel it.
Jeffrey didn’t deserve a reaction from me regardless of his behavior. He didn’t deserve the…”blah blah blah.” He didn’t deserve an ear full of misdirected anger and aggravation. He deserved a well thought out response. He deserved compassion. Don’t we all? In turn, I didn’t deserve to live with the guilt and sorrow of knowing that I’d thrown my personal baggage onto my undeserving kids’ shoulders.
So, yeah, I loved him. I loved him like he was four, because that was the appropriate response. Then, just like that, all was right. No, all was not right in the world, but it was in my heart and in theirs.
This is a time for love…and for patience…and for compassion. It’s a time for growth and time for pause. It’s time to practice our ability to interrupt our knee-jerk reactions and to create space between stimulus and response. It’s time to pause and think with a compassionate heart, and then give our absolute best.
I’m not a mentor. I’m not a guru. But I’m learning. If I can share something that I’ve learned; something that has helped me dodge the aches and pains that may have plagued me in the past, why not do it? If you know someone who’s really struggling, a couple, or a family who has been hit particularly hard by the pressures of home isolation and the conditions that this pandemic has forced upon us…encourage them. Remind them to pause and to breath until they have the ability to respond rather than to react.
Love is a verb. It’s the things that we do for the people we love. We all deserve love.