React vs. Respond

I have always shot from the hip, a bad idea. It started when I was a kid and began questioning my parents. They saw that as disrespectful and the punishment meant I got my mouth washed out with soap a lot. Before that, I had to stand in a corner where I sobbed my heart out over the unfairness of it all. That just mean I got to wash the wall upon which I cried all of my anger at the humiliating treatment. My siblings, all terrified of my patriarchal father kept their mouths shut. They obviously had more wisdom than I did. After I had become an adult a family friend said that it amazed her how I never cowered, that I always fought back.  It didn’t feel that way at the time. I was in that “whatever come into your mind, goes out of your mouth”mode. Later on, my parents accelerating my punishment to beatings with a belt, somehow related to my father coming into my room in the middle of the night.

You’d think by now I’d have learned. I’m doing better but I’m not there yet. Survivors of child sexual abuse usually react to incidents happening in their life. Responding, which would require taking a deep breath, counting to ten and then saying something like, “can I get back to you on that?” or “I’m sorry you feel that way; perhaps we could discuss it” or “call me back when you’re feeling better,” doesn’t seem to be available.

Webster doesn’t clearly show the difference in the two words but there is a difference. Both words mean to reply to someone. But react is shooting from the hip, no thought given to what is the wise thing to say. It is usually governed by emotions. It is much more satisfying when someone says something we don’t want to hear to blast them.  With thought, meaning tapping into wisdom, we can make a more appropriate reply. One is governed by fear or rage and the other is governed by a need to know all the facts, time to sort through them and then to reply in a measured tone.

This is not to say that fear is in some situations not only appropriate but needed. You find a prowler in your living room when you come home. You’re not going to say, “Can I help you?” You are going to shriek your head off, grab your cell phone and dial 911.  Anger is also sometimes appropriate. Someone steals your purse. Rage prompts you to holler, “stop that man; he stole my purse.” Perhaps in that case the anger you felt caused someone to trip the thief and grab your purse back.

Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power, predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property; in the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children. Child sexual abuse is often found in patriarchal families. It bears its roots as far back as Genesis. It’s no surprise that most patriarchal families are also religiously regimented. Man was created first; that means he’s the authority. Women were made from his rib and as such is to be obedient to her husband.  As per Rachel Held Evens’ blog from March 14, 2014, “Study after study shows that societies characterized by the subjugation of women are more violent, more impoverished, and more unjust than societies that empower women.  

Matriarchal social systems have the same description and results except that it is powered by a female, the mother. In a perfect world, marriages should be a joint social system, not a traditional one.

Two of the prominent red flags for child sexual abuse are patriarchal (or matriarchal) family systems and religiously regimented households. A child raised in such a household either shoots from the hip or cowers in the corner. They don’t know any other way. It wouldn’t matter. If I had calmly told my parents that I didn’t appreciate being treated the way I was and wanted them to stop (which I did at the age of 18) it would have earned me a beating with my dad’s belt until I was unconscious (which it did, prompting me to run away from home a week later).

Once you complete a program of recovery you will understand the wisdom of learning to respond, not react. You can’t reach that point overnight. Recovery is a complex and difficult road but the rewards at the end are amazing.  In Repair Your Life I write:

Recovery is a like a bridge that you need to cross to change your life.  In REPAIR the bridge is used as a visualization tool.  On one side are those things destroying you.  If you turn back, depression, loneliness, despair, suicidal tendencies, addictions, shame-based low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment await you.  The list is endless.

On the other side is all the good stuff.  There you will find peace, healthy choices, strong self-esteem, a feeling of being centered and capable.  There you will find joy.  Imagine a life free from pain and emotional instability; a life where waking each morning brings happy anticipation rather than dread; a life where you can stop waiting for someone to rescue you and begin to rescue yourself.  All you have to do is keep moving across that bridge.  At some point in your recovery you will learn that, like a carrot on a stick, the other side of the bridge beckons and you will no longer be tempted to turn back

Where would you rather be, living a life of anguish and abuse or standing on that bridge getting ready to cross that bridge?


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