Reacting Well

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  Prov. 15:1

Our own reactiveness to life can serve to either increase or decrease whatever presents itself to us.  This is especially so with regards to the life we meet in another person.  Depending on the degree of our response we will either intensify or reduce the stress, sorrow, crisis, hope, enthusiasm, anger or love that others present to us.  And this is where the care we take in choosing our responses to life can either directly serve God’s purposes in another person’s life, or not.  It’s a wonderful spiritual gift to know how to turn away wrath, or to fan the flames of encouragement in another person’s heart.

This principle of magnifying or diffusing the life we receive is something that is well illustrated in electrical systems, where step-up or step-down transformers either increase or decrease the voltage of the charge that first enters them.  As electricity runs across wires from telephone pole to telephone pole, it loses strength and has to be continually boosted at various intervals using a step-up transformer.  A step-up transformer acts like gears on a bicycle or in a car’s transmission, whipping the voltage up a notch.

In transformers, coils are wound on a core called the primary winding that first receives the electrical current that enters it.   After passing through a secondary winding, one that has more coils than the primary winding, the electricity leaves the transformer boosted according to the number of extra coils it went through.

Transformers can also be used to step down an electrical charge to a level suitable for the low voltage circuits that most of our appliances run on. In a step-down transformer the secondary winding will have fewer coils than the primary winding.  This will reduce the charge to a level that is safe for household use.  How is this similar to the way a gentle answer turns away wrath?  Or the way some responses might be more like pouring gas on a fire?

In his classic book, Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman speaks of how this transaction applies to what he calls “non-reactive leadership.”   He refers to this trait as “the capacity to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of an anxious system.”  Whether it’s a crisis in the workplace, the church, or a family system, a non-anxious presence, especially in leadership, will modify the anxiety of the whole community.  It will automatically “dial down” the stress of others.  The opposite is also true.  In Friedman’s words,

To the extent that we are anxious ourselves, it becomes potentiated and feeds back into the system at a higher voltage.  But to the extent that we can recognize and contain our own anxiety, then we function more as step-down transformers.  In that case our presence, far from escalating emotional potential, actually serves to diminish its effects.

Jesus tells us that, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”  It truly is an awesome responsibility to have the God-given potential to return life to itself in either a worse or a better state than we received it.  Such knowledge should humble us to be that much more careful in how we serve God in all our relationships.

Where there is no love, put love, and there you will find love.

St. John of the Cross