Last week my children decided to stay in Meeting with me. (Meeting is the Quaker form of worship, and it consists of an hour or so of silence. There is no planned music or ministry, though anyone who feels led to speak may do so.) Normally, my children sit with me for ten minutes or so, then leave with the other children for their own program. On this day, who knows why, they wanted to stay.
There followed the most interesting 40 minutes of mental acrobatics in my life.
My goal was to maintain the settled silence. I therefore could not use any of my normal methods of guiding my children—talking, explaining, separating, demonstrating, disciplining. They, as 8 and 4 year olds, were wriggly and interested and had things to say and places to go. At one point my 8 year old reached up around my neck and removed my necklace, uttering in a harsh whisper “this is MINE.” He then proceeded to put it around his own neck.
I had a very strong immediate reaction of anger. The first response that went through my head was to take the necklace away and talk to him about the rudeness of his action. But it was Meeting for Worship. I knew that to do so would set off an emotional (read: LOUD) reaction from him, and we would seriously disturb everyone else. So I sat there and simmered. The second response that occurred to me was to walk him out of the Meeting room and talk with him about proper etiquette in Meeting. But again, our leaving would cause a disturbance as well as a probable upset for my 4-year old, and it would sort of defeat the purpose of explaining Meeting etiquette if, to do so, I had to violate it.
We sat there, and third and fourth and fifth responses ran through my mind, none of which I could act upon. And then, as the silence gathered, between adjustments to small wandering feet and hands that kept making their ways onto various parts of my body, the responses deepened. Now, rather than being knee-jerk emotional reactions to the stimulus, they were considered and heartfelt responses. I thought about the ways in which my son’s belief in his ownership of the necklace was justified. I thought about the deep roots of my angry response, why it was that I felt so violated. I thought about how my daily interactions with my son can so often devolve into stimulus/response, almost scripted interchanges.
By the end of Meeting I had decided to act upon my 347th response, which was to have a long talk with my son about the kind of human being I hoped he would grow up to be. And that’s what I did. All the way home, walking and gathering flowers, we talked about what a good man is, both in his view and mine. I really listened to him. He really listened to me. I told him that reaching into a woman’s space like that and taking what he wanted really disturbed me, and I told him why. It was an amazing conversation. It could never have happened had I followed my first response.
First responders are emergency workers. They are trained to act swiftly and decisively in emergency situations. In these circumstances, going with the first response is highly recommended. But how often are we in emergency, life-or-death situations? I know that for many of us, the stress of daily life triggers fight-or-flight responses from our nervous system far more often than is necessary, with terrible consequences to our health. Might this be true for our mental experience as well? Might it be true that going with our reflexive, knee-jerk first response in nearly every situation is harmful to our mental and emotional health?
At women’s joy circle on Monday, we explored this idea. We spent a lot of time in yoga, warming and opening our bodies with deep, conscious breathing. Then we gathered in a circle and talked about first responses. We talked about how many of our interchanges are scripted: “Good morning!” “Good morning.” “How did you sleep?” “Fine.” “How was your day?” “Great.” “Have a good one!” “You too.” We talked about how easy it is to fall into these patterns of exchange and never really communicate at all. And then we did this exercise:
Number a sheet of paper from 1 to 15. Your partner asks “How are you today?” Write down your first response. Again, your partner asks “How are you today?” Write down your second response. Continue until all fifteen spaces are filled.
This gets reaaaaally interesting right around response #8. Authentic communication starts to break through. In the circle, we shared some of our favorite responses and got everything from “filled with light and love!” to “incredibly sad” to “did you have a favorite umbrella as a child?”
Pairing off, we practiced communication beyond first response. Each partner responded to the questions and comments of their counterpart in a normal dialogue, with the caveat that no first responses could be used. No one spoke until the third or fourth response had presented itself.
We had an odd number of women, so I sat out and listened. What fascinated me most was how incredibly interesting the conversations became, within the space of just a few minutes. There was a lot more silence than occurs in a normal conversation too, as people considered their responses.
We closed with rose petal tea and cookies and brags and dancing. Everyone had a difficult time leaving. True communication does that to people! Many of us decided to practice using third, fourth, fifth responses in the kind of pat conversations that occur with cashiers or bus drivers or other parents at school, and to see what happens. Here’s mine from yesterday morning:
Parent of child in my child’s class: Good morning!
Me: I know that it could be, but I’m feeling off today.
Parent: What happened?
Me: I don’t think anything happened. I think I’m frustrated with myself for not following through with promises I’ve made.
Parent: what sort of promises?
Me: Promises to myself, mostly, about how I want to spend my time.
Parent: You know, I do that too. I’ve been wanting to go berry picking for several days now, and I keep getting caught in other stuff, and I’m going to miss the window of opportunity.
Me: want to go berry picking today?
Parent: great idea! let’s bring the kids and do it this afternoon!
We had an incredible time. It was so much better than “good morning/good morning/see you later/goodbye.”