But this blog post is not about our societies’ first responders, but our personal “first responses.” It is a fact of human psychology that our first responses in many situations are often anything but trustworthy. Think about this for a moment. If someone were to suddenly insult you, throw a rock at you, or to kick your new car, what would your first response be – to immediately retaliate verbally or in some other way? For most of us the answer is probably yes – whether we would eventually calm down and restrain ourselves or not. Perhaps there are a few people whose first responses to negative or provocative stimuli are always calm and rational, but I have not personally had the honor of meeting any of them.
What I do know, and what you probably have found as well, is that in all too many situations in life, no matter what our level of sincerity or dedication to our beliefs, our first responses are often not our best responses. People often talk about “trusting our first instincts,” but like it or not, our first reactions to problematic situations and stimuli are usually those hardwired into our human nature and almost always wrong. Anger, denial, justification of our behavior, shifting of blame, and countless other negative first responses are the stock-in-trade of human psychology.
So whenever the potential for a problem occurs or some kind of interpersonal difficulty actually arises, we do need to focus on our responses and not just let them happen. There are several things we can do in this regard. Consider the right responses involved in a physical emergency situation. First response organizations advocate three essential steps at such times: (A)ssess the situation, (C)all for help, (T)alk to people who have been affected, calm them, and address their needs. These three “A.C.T.” steps can be utilized spiritually in our interpersonal relations just as much as they can be used in physical situations – a fact we see frequently in the wisdom found in the Bible’s book of Proverbs.
(A)ssess the situation: Our first responses are often the wrong ones because we follow human impulses without considering their outcome. Many statements found in Proverbs urge us to avoid that. For example, “the one who acts hastily sins” (Proverbs 19:2 Holman) refers to the need to assess situations carefully before acting, and “do not answer a fool … answer a fool” (Proverbs 26:4-5) likewise counsels us to remember that different responses are needed in different situations. We must assess first, but once it is clear that we have a problem, we should move to the next step.
(C)all for help: First responders urge people to call 911 or their local emergency number to get help as soon as they see what the problem is and confirm the seriousness of its nature. When it comes to getting our spiritual responses right, as soon as we realize we have a problem, prayer should likewise be our first call. Proverbs assures us that “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29), and this especially applies in any spiritual emergency situation where we need help to respond in the way we should. God is the ultimate first responder and as Christians we should make it a habit to seek his help in quick silent prayer, whenever possible before our interpersonal problems escalate.
(T)alk to people who have been affected, calm them, and address their needs: This emergency situation technique can certainly be utilized when we are faced with difficult interpersonal situations. Being aware of the natural prevalence of wrong first reactions in our own lives can help us to be mindful of the need to help others through their own first reactions. We do this by first working to calm them rather than reacting in such a way as to make the situation worse. Proverbs makes this point very clearly: “A gentle response diverts anger, but a harsh statement incites fury. The wise speak, presenting knowledge appropriately…” (Proverbs 15:1 ISV). Just as a first responder will work to help with people’s needs in a physical emergency, we can also focus on the needs of the other person with whom a problem has developed rather than concentrating on our own hurts and perceived needs.
These may all be basic approaches to working with situations such as arguments, accidents, misunderstandings, and other problems that may occur in our lives, but their simplicity makes them all the more effective if we can learn to utilize them. First responders urge us to “A.C.T.” when physical problems occur that are of an emergency nature. In the sphere of everyday interpersonal problems, remembering the acronym “A.C.T” can also help us – before our problem circumstances get to the level of a spiritual emergency!