“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”
– Marcus Aurelius
It was my children’s first day back to school after a holiday break. The school bus was due to pull up to the corner in four minutes. My daughters were doing their last minute gathering of shoes, water bottles, lunches, and backpacks.
“Don’t forget it’s Tuesday,” I called to my eight-year-old daughter as she headed for the boots lying next to the door. “Tennis shoes for P.E.,” I added.
My child stopped dead in her tracks. She turned to face me, gripping her right arm with her left. “Mama, my arm hurts today. Could you write me a note that says my arm is sore?”
- “You want me to write a note now? You should have thought of it sooner.”
- “Sore arm? Let me guess—too much Nintendo Wii? I am not writing a note for that.”
- “You will be fine. Come on, we need to go. The bus is coming.”
I thought those responses. I thought them all.
But I didn’t say them.
Because as I was thinking about all things I wanted to say, I gave myself a three-second preview of what those responses would do for the situation. From past experiences, I could envision how this situation would play out if I chose sarcasm, hostility, and annoyance over empathy, responsiveness, and respect.
Choosing hostility in a moment of conflict had once resulted in smashing my husband’s coffee pot in the kitchen sink.
And then came regret.
Choosing malice in a moment of conflict had once caused me to squeal my tires in a gravel parking lot.
And then came regret.
Outrage was the reason I lost all control one day when I was unable to locate my car in a sea of vehicles.
And then came regret.
Despite the years that have passed since those incidents, I can still see my children’s faces, staring at me in horror wondering what had become of me in those moments.
Overreaction is what had become of me. It became my middle name. And regret was right there beside it. Regret follows on the heels of overreaction every single time.
I detested myself in those moments. I wanted to run away and hide. But most of all, I didn’t want to be that volatile person anymore. Regret can be a powerful motivator.
The Power of a 3-Second Pause
How did I begin to choose calm over crazed … reasonable over senseless … composed over fuming? One of my strategies was making a conscious effort to spot the “flowers” instead of the “weeds” in situations and in people. Another tactic was adopting a mantra to silence my inner bully. Whenever a critical thought came to mind, I silenced it with the phrase, “Only Love Today.” And another tactic was to envision my angry words like a car crash, inflicting damage to the person on the receiving end. All of this led to giving myself a 3-second pause to preview how a situation would play out if I chose controlling hostility over peaceful compassion.
So there I was, standing in the kitchen on a recent morning, facing one of those fragile situations. I knew my response could either make or break the situation. And something told me that dismissing my daughter’s pain would cause things to quickly deteriorate.
So I took a three-second pause before opening my mouth.
And that’s where the real beauty happened.
While taking that pause, I noticed there were real tears welling in my daughter’s eyes … real tears she didn’t want to fall … real tears she was actually pushing back with her fingers.
That 3-second pause was just long enough for me to realize this sadness, this pain, this worry of my child’s was real. And a note to the P.E. teacher was very important to her.
Grabbing a notepad out of the junk drawer, I scribbled a quick note to the P.E. teacher and handed it to my child.
I never knew I had the power to hand someone a little bit of peace … a tiny corner of comfort … a permission slip to regain composure … but now I do. My compassionate reaction to my child’s situation held the power to save a morning, to save a heart from worry.
“Thank you, Mama,” she said quietly. I actually saw the color coming back to her face.
I thought of my child’s sore arm throughout the day. I knew our conversation could have easily gone another way. And although I don’t always make the right choice with my words, I knew I had that time. Regret was not my companion that day.
“How did P.E. go?” I asked my daughter when she got home from school.
“Well, when I got to P.E., I saw they were doing something I could do, even with a sore arm. So I tucked the note in my pocket and played,” she told me.
There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have given my child that note. My response to her 6:55 a.m. request would have been underlined with control, exasperation, anger, and insensitivity. We probably wouldn’t have made it to the bus, and, most likely, we would have parted on bad terms. She probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make her own good choice in P.E. that day. There would have been no winners in that battle.
Thank goodness, things are different now. I now know every challenging situation does not have to be a contest to be right … to “win” … to have things go the way I want them to go. The goal of each situation is to speak in a way I can be heard … to listen in a way that the other person can be heard … and to walk away feeling at peace with the way the situation was handled. Regret, it’s nice to see you go.
My list of overreactions is long and it is ugly, but today matters more than yesterday. I’ve started a new a list—a list of compassionate responses that I’ve offered. This list inspired me to write a hopeful reminder—a reminder that 3-second pauses have the power to save a morning, spare some pain, and prevent regret from being a lifelong companion. May it bring someone else hope too.
I am My Response
I am my response to my child’s mismatched outfit and the crumpled report card at the bottom of her backpack.
I am my response to my spouse who returned from the store without toilet paper but remembered the tailgate snacks.
I am my response to my anxious parent who repeats the same worries and insists on giving me coupons I do not need.
I am my response to my colleague with sad eyes and frequent absences.
I am my response to my fifteen-minutes-late hairdresser with a sick child.
I am my response to my neighbor with heart-heavy problems and little family support.
I am my response to the irate driver who cut me off and made an obscene gesture in front of my children.
I am my response to the waitress who got my order wrong.
I am my response to myself when I forgot the one thing I most needed to do today.
I am my response to spilled coffee, long lines, and middle-of-the-night wake ups.
My responses are not perfect … they are not always ideal … I am human after all.
But if I strive to offer responses underlined with…
That is something.
That is really something.
Because my responses are more than just words.
who I am,
who I want to be,
and how I will someday be remembered.
Today I will not respond perfectly. I know. But if strive to communicate with hints of kindness and traces of love…
That will be something
That will really be something
That could mean more than words.
Can you think of a time when taking a quick pause, and a deep breath, saved you from overreacting and responding to a situation inappropriately?
Anything else to share?
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Author Bio: Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher and New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mama. Her latest book, Hands Free Life, is for anyone who would like to stop managing life and start living it with more presence, peace, and human connection. Rachel founded handsfreemama.com and The Hands Free Revolution to help people grasp the moments that matter despite societal distractions and everyday pressures.