Back in our school days, the pupil who “got it” the fastest would bask in the teacher’s favor, and sometimes his classmates’ envy. The top student was the boy with a quick grasp, the girl with a ready answer on her lips. In the schoolyard and elsewhere, the kid with the quickest reflexes shone and the one with the quicksilver repartee was the undisputed star.
Not much has changed since then. As adults, we continue to be impressed by an agile mind, the nimble use of language, a trigger-sharp response time. Then, as now, a quick reaction is equated with being intelligent and on the ball. Quick is smart. Quick is admirable. Quick is cool.
In dealing with a crisis, a rapid reaction is paramount. “First responders” are the first to appear on the scene of a catastrophe, the first to assess a situation and offer appropriate aid. These vital players are trained to act first and think later. There’s no arguing with the fact that, in an emergency or its immediate aftermath, a rapid response is crucial. Or with the fact that, in general, saving time is a useful thing. Modern society has taken pride in shaving precious seconds off just about everything.
But what happens when we try to incorporate our fascination with fast into the more nuanced parts of our daily lives?
Let’s look at a few examples.
Your neighbor has some overflow stuff, and she asks if she can store it—temporarily, of course—in your basement or garage. She seems to take it for granted that you are the most generous neighbor in the universe and wouldn’t mind a bit.
A friend whom you are eager to please asks for a commitment, in terms of your time and energy, to something with which you’ve had little chance to familiarize yourself. She insists that time is of the essence.
Your daughter asks for permission to go somewhere you’re not sure about. She lays on the pressure, including the fact that “all her friends” are going, and the implication that you’ll be the coolest parent ever if you agree.
A relative urges you to take sides in a difference of opinion that’s brewing in the family. The implication being that you must decide at once, if not sooner, and that you will place yourself beyond the pale of you do not agree with his position.
Starting to get the picture?
The pressure to make decisions and to take positions bombards us almost from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close them again at night. As family members, as parents, as neighbors and co-workers and friends, we continually confront the need to decide where we stand. Sometimes those decisions are expected to be rapid-fire. But what happens if you’re not the type of person who thinks fast on her feet?
As I can ruefully attest from personal experience, this is a definite handicap. All too often, a situation comes up where I’m called upon to make a lightning decision. Sometimes my decision will impact not only me, but others as well. There may be multiple factors and factions, all warring for my endorsement. I use the word “warring” not in the sense of conflict as much as in the sense of militancy. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is certain that, if only they muster enough logic and persuasive oratory, I will succumb to their point of view. Oftener than I’d like, they’re right.
Why do we do that?
Let’s go back and take a second look at our four examples.
Your neighbor may be a lovely person, but she has a most un-lovely tendency to surround herself with stuff. Also, she’s not the most conscientious human being in the world. You have a sneaking suspicion that, once safely bestowed in your garage or basement, the piles of stuff she put there will be conveniently forgotten. It may end up being your lot in life to store your neighbor’s overflow indefinitely. Not a pleasant prospect.
But you want to hold onto her good opinion. She seems to assume that your innate generosity of spirit will prompt you to accede to her request. To do otherwise would show you in a churlish light, and who wants to look churlish? So, against your better judgement, you put on a bright smile, bid a sad, private farewell to that little bit of extra storage space, and say, “Sure!”
Moving on to the friend who invites you to join her in some project that will demand a considerable commitment of time and energy. She makes her request without giving you the time you need to look into the matter, or even to sort out your own thoughts about it. But you desperately want to keep this friendship. And so, although it feels somewhat akin to stepping off a precipice in the dark… you say yes.
Your daughter has a huge advantage, in that you are a hostage to her love. By playing the “everyone’s going” card, she puts you in the position of appearing old-fashioned or unreasonably rigid if you refuse. By playing the unspoken but oh-so-powerful, “I’ll consider you the most awesome parent and love you to pieces if you say yes,” she strengthens her hand sevenfold. Driven by your desire to appear wonderful in your child’s eyes, and by your fear of losing her love if you refuse… you capitulate.
Last, but certainly not least, is your relative’s insistence that you choose sides in the latest conflict of interests within the family. Apart from the fact that you’re an amicable type who does not thrive on controversy, you truly have not figured out where you stand in all of this. Your relative wants you to do so right now, while standing on one foot as it were. How do you avoid the trap?
I’ll tell you what works for me… when I remember to do it. In each of these kinds of situations, plus many more that confront us every day, I know full well that I am not yet in a position to take a position. Not being equipped with a mind like a computer, I like to mull things over in my own good time. I need to muster the facts to help me make my decision. And I almost inevitably find that a decision made in haste, especially one prompted by some sort of fear, is probably not the decision I would have made had I had time to properly think it over.
To return to our examples: agreeing to store a careless neighbor’s overflow stuff simply because you want to appear generous (or, conversely, not appear ungenerous) is a decision you will probably come to regret. Not only when you need the space for your own family’s needs, but also when resentment flares up in you as time goes by and she seems to have forgotten all about the stuff taking up half your basement or garage. Better to say a gracious “no” now, than plant a seed of future resentment with a half-hearted “yes.”
The same applies to hastily falling in with your friend’s plans out of an insecure yearning to hold onto her affection. Unhealthy motives do not make for healthy decisions. Double ditto for trying to “buy” your child’s love by agreeing to let them do or have things you’re not sure you want them to do or have. Lastly, coming down on one side or another in a family controversy calls for long, careful thought. “Haste makes waste” was never more applicable than here, when dissension can transform a lush, green, family landscape into a wasteland of rancor and bitterness.
So what do I do, at those times when I am able to maintain my presence of mind in the face of pressure to decide something hastily? I simply smile and say, “Let me think it over and get back to you.”
Most people respect that position. They feel respected by your willingness to take the time to ponder their request.
And, at the end of the day, they’ll respect you… for respecting yourself enough to avoid a rapid response when a carefully calibrated one is so clearly called for!