Acting vs. Reacting

   As many of you know I am studying in a doctoral program in marriage and family therapy at Argosy University. In three years of school I have completed all my core and elective courses covering over twenty different theories of counseling, how to appraise and assess patients/clients, as well as the ethics and profession of therapy, and doing research. I have passed one comprehensive exam and take two additional exams this Fall. The remainder of the program for me will consist of coursework and internships in supervision of counseling, teaching theory and practice, and my dissertation. I feel very blessed to have your prayerful support as I acquire more skills and experience to offer pastoral counseling to members of our parish community and others who hurt and need help.

   Of those twenty theories of counseling, one of them has a single important principle called ‘differentiation’. As its name implies in consists of being able to distinguish between two or more things. For example, what distinguishes marriage and family therapy as a counseling profession from psychology is an emphasis on systems. In other words, instead of focusing solely on the intrapsychic dynamic of an individual (e.g. thoughts and feelings both conscious and subconscious), family therapy focuses on systems in which the client is a member. Each and every family is a unique system of persons with their own way of interacting amongst each other and with other systems like extended family, neighbors, schools and society at large.

   More importantly, differentiation in marriage and family therapy mainly looks at how a person can distinguish within him/herself thoughts and feelings as well as distinguish between his/her own thoughts and feelings and those of other people. “People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. On the other hand, a person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.”

   In reflecting on today’s Epistle reading (1Corinthians 4:9-16) from the 10th Sunday of Matthew, Fr. Anthony Coniaris [“Are You an Actor or a Reactor?” (Treasures from Paul’s Letters, vol.1, p.11)] shared a little vignette which I have adapted slightly. A brother and sister were shopping at the store. When Georgios observed Georgia being treated very rudely by the clerk, he marveled that she did not behave rudely back to the person. He asked Georgia, “Why are you so polite to him?” She answered, “Why not? Why should I let him decide how I am going to act?” The important word here is “act.” Some people act towards others, many of us react towards other people. A person who acts is well-differentiated; a person who reacts is less differentiated. Those with less wait to be transformed by their environment instead of acting to be transform the world around them. Often we are reactors rather than actors. We wait see how others will act toward us before we decide how we will act toward them. If they praise us, we will praise them. If they criticize us, we will criticize them.

   In today’s Epistle, St. Paul talks about the Apostles as differentiated actors, not undifferentiated reactors.

12And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the off-scouring of all things until now. (1Cor.4:12-13)

   An differentiated actor does not let others decide how he is going to feel today; whether he is going to be happy or unhappy, polite or rude, irritable or calm. God is an actor, not a reactor. Jesus had much to say about undifferentiated reactors.

   32But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. (Luke 6:32-34)

   Then Jesus goes on to talk about differentiated actors.

35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)

   Jesus Himself was a differentiated actor, not an undifferentiated reactor. After being betrayed by Judas, arrested at night, unfairly tried and convicted, beaten, scourged and finally crucified, Jesus, who had the power to call twelve legions of angels to destroy His persecutors, looked upon them and said: 34Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots. (Luke 23:34). People who lack good differentiation do not consciously know what they are doing, at least not at the moment they are doing it. They are reacting on an emotional “fight or flight” level that was conditioned by their family of origin, the family they grew up in. A well-differentiated person, does not react on this level but acts by engaging the pre-frontal cortex of his/her brain. They act consciously and intentionally.

   None of us are responsible for all the things that happen to us, but all of are responsible for the way we act when they do happen; whether we act or react. What happens around us is largely out of our control, but the way we choose to respond to what happens is inside our control. This is an anthropological principle of Christian spirituality and it’s also a bedrock principle of marriage and family therapy.

   How can we become actors and not reactors? Listen to what the Apostle Paul says:

20I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).

   In other words, we must imitate the differentiated Christ, and to imitate Him we must be crucified with Him. This means we must crucify, literally slay or kill, the passions within us. Passions are sinful tendencies that drive us to react, sometimes to our own thoughts and emotions, sometimes to how others treat us. When we are sinfully passionate we are undifferentiated reactors. St. Paul was struggling with his own lack of differentiation when he wrote: 14For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:14-17)

   So, in conclusion, if we wish to be differentiated actors we must crucify ourselves with Christ through ascetic struggle. That is, we must sacrifice what is easy to do to get immediate gratification and replace it with what is often hard to do and does not necessarily bring immediate reward. These difficult, sacrificial ascetical exercises that we must do are daily prayer, weekly worship at church, fasting, and helping those in need. These are so simple yet, why are they so hard to do sometimes? Because we are at war with the devil who opposes anything that helps us grow and mature to become differentiated actors. Satan wants us to be undifferentiated sinful reactors. Even Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading (Matt.17:14-23) that certain demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (v.21) but all demons must be expelled by faith and trust in God. How can we have faith in God if we can’t even make it to church on Sunday?

   To close let us hear from Jesus one more time, and I will add some explanatory language to His words:

38"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But I tell you not to resist [react to] an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, [consciously] turn the other to him also… 43"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I say to you, [consciously act to] love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, (Matthew 5:38-44). Let us be differentiated actors who love, bless, do good and pray for everyone. Amen!