Do You Act, Or React? (revisited)

My good buddy Elbert asked me to revisit this short passage I posted a few days ago and follow-up with my thoughts. It’s quite an eye-opening short story that I think everyone can find wisdom in – here it is again:


This short story left me thinking “Whoa..” at the end of reading it, because I’m sure most of us never really see our actions through the perspective of “Am I acting or reacting right now?” I love this section from the passage:

“He has a sense of inner balance which is lacking in most of us; he knows who he is, what he stands for, how he should behave. He refuses to return incivility for incivility, because then he would no longer be in command of his own conduct.”

This is so true, but it’s definitely a very difficult mental frame to discipline your mind to starting thinking through. Humans are extremely emotional creatures – we can “feel” in ways every other animal on the planet cannot. It allows us to experience unimaginable sensations and wonders as we go through life, but it also leaves us very vulnerable if our minds are fragile. For example, we all want to be liked by others – it’s a biological instinct because humans are tribal creatures that need to collaborate in order to survive. But I like how the author put it:

To let another determine if we shall be rude or gracious, elated or depressed, is to relinquish control over our own personalities, which is ultimately all we possess.

All we ultimately possess as humans, these thinking flesh-vehicles, is the power of choice. Just boil humans down to the most fundamental elements, and all you have is an intelligent, thinking creature made out of flesh, skin, bones, and muscles just like most other animals on the Earth. Therefore the first and most fundamental possession we humans have is the gift of conscious thought and the gift to choose whatever we want to do. When we start letting external stimuli (i.e. criticism from others, the economy, the negative body language of someone else, etc.) affect our own actions, we start to become reactionary and we start to give up our control of choice.

That’s why I love the short story and the power it has in such a simple tale. There’s bad-tempered newsboy that never says a word whenever the Quaker friend thanks him politely for his daily newspaper. If the Quaker friend is a polite and kind person, why should someone else’s actions be ABLE to change that? Of course it’s easier said than done, but I see this as mental/emotional strength – making a conscious decision that you’re not going to let the external world affect you, because you know exactly who you are (self-awareness).

I think criticism is the easiest way to see if someone has this skill developed or not. If you are highly self-aware, you should be able to pick apart the truth from the criticism and take whatever is helpful to you (YOU determine whether criticism is constructive or now) and not let it get you down. The author said it beautifully:

“Serenity cannot be achieved until we become the masters of our own actions and attitudes”

I  think it comes down to this – Who do you want to have control of your actions? You or someone else?