To React is Human; to Respond, Divine

A reaction may be defined as the execution of a template without any conscious intention or deliberate thought. As biological and social beings, we carry within ourselves a wide range of readily available templates, or patterns of action, each of which is a small program that triggers a particular action whenever a particular stimulus appears. Many of these templates are encoded into our genes and inscribed into our muscles and neurons.  These are sometimes called instincts or reflexes. We share these biological templates with other life forms, especially with mammals.  Our pupils shrink when our eyes encounter a bright light; our salivary glands start their production when we smell an appetizing dinner; our lower legs jerk forward when the patellar tendons in our knees are gently tapped; our heart rates rise when we sense danger. All of these are reactions; they represent the execution of biological templates without any conscious intention or deliberate thought on our part. Their logic is similar to the sequences in computer programs that follow the IF, THEN routine.

But we are not simply biological beings, as are all other life forms on earth.  We are also social beings.  Humans are said to be significantly incomplete at birth, for many of the templates of action that we need to execute innumerable times each day are not encoded into our genes or inscribed into our muscles and neurons. We are not born with these templates; instead, we acquire them during the course of our interactions with other people and with the world. These social templates are learned patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions.  While the biological templates are identical in all people, the social templates vary from one culture to another and from one individual to the next. They may change over the course of a person’s life, usually due to changes in the external environment. As templates, however, they are executed in the same way as our biologically grounded instincts and reflexes, i.e., without any conscious intention or deliberate thought on our part. Like biological templates, the social templates are based on the simple logic of the IF, THEN routine. For instance, the emotion of anger arises in me whenever someone calls me by a name that I do not appreciate, or the emotion of satisfaction arises when I feel a sense of ownership in relation to something I have learned to desire. In terms of their inner logic, these social templates are hardly distinguishable from the shrinking of my pupils when I leave the living room and step into bright sunlight.

The hallmark of a reaction is that we experience it as natural, inevitable, beyond anyone’s control, automatic, predictable, unavoidable, etc. In a reaction, the triggering event (or stimulus) is directly and immediately linked with the subsequent thought, feeling, or action.  In other words, there is no gap between the cause (A) and the effect (B), the two of them forming an uninterrupted loop of inevitability.  Whenever there is A, we can safely posit B.  Whenever we notice B, we can be assured of the prior existence of A.

If you haven’t already noticed, this model is seriously flawed. It is factually incorrect and morally devastating.

To approach the human condition in terms of the reaction model is to give up all agency, free will, choice, and, with them, any hope for personal effectiveness. In this model, it is always they — other people, circumstances, God, my parents, this awful winter, my in-laws, my lousy childhood, patriarchy, the media, the government, my ADD, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians — who enjoy all the power, leaving “me” with no ability whatsoever to do anything authentic.  It is always they who act on me and all I can do is react.  In this model, my reaction (B) should be perfectly justifiable to anyone who can see the original cause (A).  Human actions become as predictable as the course of billiard balls in Newtonian physics. If you know what they did to me, can’t you see I had to do what I did? I did what I did because I couldn’t have done otherwise. I had no choice. I was only doing my duty. You would have done the same thing if you were in my position.  Furthermore, I am doing what I am doing now simply because I cannot do otherwise. It’s in my genes.  Under this situation and with these skills, one can only do what I am doing. I always act this way. This is the company policy, after all. It runs in the family.  I didn’t want to do this; it was you who made me.  If anyone is to be blamed, it is the world in which I am living.

franklVictor Frankl would disagree. The psychologist and Holocaust survivor famously said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl provides an alternative to the reaction model.  The reaction model teaches that human suffering is primarily the result of objective conditions, i.e., forces or factors over which we have no control (which raises the intractable “problem” of evil). Frankl’s insight suggests otherwise.  The primary cause of human suffering is not to be found in the external, or objective, conditions of our existence; rather, it is found in our inner, subjective world . . . more specifically, in our moment-by-moment state of consciousness. To the extent that we are able to choose our state of consciousness, to that extent our suffering ceases to be a “problem” for philosophy and theology, and turns into something quite different.

Frankl suggests that response should replace reaction.  We must transcend mindless reactiveness by cultivating mindful responsiveness.  There is no other way out of suffering.

The main difference between a reaction and a response lies in the space that a person experiences between the given condition or event (A) and his/her subsequent thoughts, feelings, and actions (B). According to Frankl, the freedom to choose is situated in the space  between A and B. Such a space is absent in the case of reactions, which are merely the unfolding of socially acquired templates; by definition, a reaction is devoid of conscious intention and deliberate thought, which is why it is experienced as a compulsion or a necessity rather than a choice. On the other hand, the cultivation of responsiveness requires that we bring conscious awareness to whatever happens to be our situation or experience in any given moment. The intensity of our conscious awareness determines the space of freedom between A and B that may be available to us in that moment.

4 Comments on “To React is Human; to Respond, Divine

  1. Essentially we do choose who we want to be, where we want to go and how far. Given enough time, the possibilities are limitless.

    So…although I find your blog quite useful, forthright in its approach and quite to the point, I can’t help but wonder:

    Is to achieve something, be it status, knowledge, friendship, nirvana, enlightenment, fame, power, Godliness, loyalty – are all these directly proportionate to our ability to, as the Nike motto goes, “Just Do It?”

    • I would like to clarify two points: first, the default nature of what we do is mindless reactiveness, and, second, achievement is highly overrated.

      Let me explain the first point. What I am trying to say is that the vast majority of human actions are rooted in socialization and conditioning, which means that these actions are closer to instincts than they are to choices. Even when we believe that we are taking a decision based on “rational” considerations and are therefore making a “rational choice,” we are for the most part simply processing what we have learned from our past experiences. Insofar as our actions are predictable on the basis of our cultural context or our biography, we are reacting rather than responding. There is hardly any genuine novelty, value, or authenticity in such actions. We can use the word “choice” if we want to, but this is the same kind of “choice” we sometimes make between Coke and Pepsi. On the other hand, an individual who has attained true inner freedom would consistently fail to conform to any pattern or statistical generalization.

      Regarding the second point, I think the actual achievement of a goal (be it material or spiritual) is not all that critical for human well-being, whether individually or as a species. Look around. The relationship between ability and achievement is rather tenuous, as many achievements are decided by factors that most people would identify as sheer luck, randomness, or God’s will (and this includes inherent ability). If you insist on using the word “achievement,” I would distinguish between inner achievement and outer achievement. Overcoming mindless reactiveness, experiencing true inner freedom, and cultivating mindful responsiveness are the only achivements that are critical for human well-being. All else is secondary.

  2. Hm very valid points. I will have to chew on that for a while. In the meantime more to read 🙂

  3. Hi there,

    Yes. Interesting article. Ijust wondered how you think all this works with the alcoholic response.

    How does the ‘Freedom Gap’ work when a person is heavily dependent on alcohol for instance, when one drink immediately triggers the release of the feel good chemicals and fires the compulsion to keep on going? Do they still have a choice in the matter?

    Seems to me, drugs and alcohol make damn sure there will be little, if any, cognitive choice-making going on that will be consistent with a person’s standard set of (sober/clean) models of behaviour.

    I’d like to hear your thought on this.

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