“Why’d I say that?” I thought to myself. I’d been in a conversation with someone, a friend, and found myself reacting to something they’d said. It happened so fast it was almost automatic. In other words, the terms they used, their tone of voice, their body language, facial expressions, and the way it was said was like the pushing of a button. With that button pushed, there was an automatic reaction that was, well—automatic. It was almost like it was programmed. My father in law worked for IBM and was an electronic engineer. “Computers only do what you tell them to do,” he once told while I was complaining about my computer not working right. In other words, “It’s not to computers fault for doing what you told it to do, Dave!” I didn’t want to hear that but it was true. Within reason, the same is true of our reactivity.
Reactivity, and the corresponding fight, flight, or freeze responses often associated with it, have historical precedent in our lives. In other words, they are virtually programmed into our psyche through our family of origin, life experiences, or just plain human frailty. James and John’s response to the Samaritan village that rejected Jesus is a case of reactivity, “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to consume them?!!” they asked. “Good heavens no!!” Was Jesus response [Miles paraphrase]. “I don’t do things like that, and neither should you.” Their reactivity to being rejected by Gentiles was tied into their Jewishness and the cultural climate of the day. The same is true for us.
Why do we react when a parent or a spouse or a friend or an enemy states an obvious opinion as if it was fact? Why do we react when a coworker blames us for something we know we didn’t do? Why do we react when our expectations, even those that are really unrealistic, aren’t met? Why do we react when people don’t act or think the way we think they should act or think? Why do we react when others do stuff that is problematic for us when we’ve never told them its problematic for us?
In reality, reactivity tells us something about ourselves. Here’s what I think: reactivity tells us that something other than God is being used to validate our worth, significance, prestige or reputation. In short, reactivity flows from idolatry. And idolatry flows from the sense that something other than God will give me joy, happiness or life. Merle Jordon in his book, Taking on the Gods, says “Essentially, persons are created in the image of God and only in being true to that inner self, linked with God, will emotional and spiritual well-being flow. When a person takes his or her identity from that which is less that the Ultimate Source of Being, then the sense of self is distorted. Various defenses [emphasis mine] and emotional and physical symptoms may appear over time which are covert modes of communicating that one is out of touch with one’s true self and with the true God.” (pg. 24)
Truthfully, we all do this. Some of us are just more overt about it than others. We may react by quietly stewing for weeks over some perceived slight. Or we may explode or become caustic or gossip or trash another person behind their back. All of this tells us more about ourselves than we are often willing to admit.