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October 31, 2019

I don’t have too many favorite TV commercials. Mostly, they’re an unwelcome interruption. But occasionally one comes along and gets my attention. That’s what Allstate’s Mayhem commercials did. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? Since 2010, actor Dean Winters has been making me laugh with scenarios from trees falling on cars, to cats turning on water in the upstairs bathroom, to the discount game parking guy. The writers of these commercials should get some kind of award. I have a feeling Allstate isn’t getting these things on a pro bono basis, though, so…

If you get a chuckle out of these, I’m pretty sure it’s because you’ve either had something similar to the scenarios happen to you, or you can imagine them happening. And when you get to personify the mayhem, it’s even better.

Everybody has to deal with mayhem. It’s just a part of life. I blame Adam and Eve. Ever since the Fall and the Curse, no matter who you are, mayhem’s been in the script for us.

Marriages and families are way not exempt from mayhem. In fact, some of the most frustrating, even devastating mayhem happens there.

As in the rest of life, some of (maybe most of) the mayhem in marriage and family life is the result of choices we make. Not all, but most. There are things that happen – mayhem we have to manage to get through – that comes to us because of decisions other people make and things beyond our control. We really are innocent victims of mayhem sometimes. A car pulls out in front of you. You get to your destination just fine, but your luggage doesn’t. The dog eats your homework.

But most mayhem comes our way because of something we did or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say. I don’t know how you could ever reliably establish a percentage for it, but I’d have to guess it’s way north of 50%. Maybe even in the 80% neighborhood.

I don’t think it’s possible to make mayhem never happen. There are too many other mitigating factors. But it’s got to be possible to minimize it, doesn’t it? There’s got to be a way to set ourselves up for less mayhem, or at least get hurt less by it when it happens.

Here’s the simple answer: Don’t make dumb choices. That’s pretty indelicate, but it’s the best way to minimize mayhem and its effects in our marriages and families.

OK, so how do you do that?

Start here: learn how to respond instead of reacting. This is a lot harder to do than to say. Most of us have lived a good bit of our lives in the reaction mode, and turning the dial to responding instead is a difficult task.

Reactions come from what neuroscientists call the “primitive brain.” This is the part of the brain where instinct and emotions (among other things) reside. It’s a very powerful part of your brain. There are pathways connecting this part of your brain with the executive centers of your brain, in the prefrontal cortex, where reason resides, but they’re often underutilized and weak. Lots of people use the pathways between their primitive brain and the executive center so seldom it’s almost like the pathways don’t exist. These people are usually slaves to their emotions. They usually react to stimuli instantly, and then, on reflection, wish they’d done something different. Except by then it’s too late.

Now, reactions aren’t all bad. God gave us this capability to react as a gift. It’s part of the marvelous survival system He put in us by design. If you can’t react quickly to a threat, you just might get taken out by it. So reactions aren’t all bad. But not all reactions are good.

What separates reactions from responses? Just one thing, really. Thought. Conscious thought. Reactions require no thought at all. In fact, thinking just gets in the way of reacting. If you’re a cornerback in the NFL, you need to have grooved your reactions in so well that you don’t have to consciously think through what your best counter move to a wide receiver’s juke is. You just react to it. That’s what 10,000 hours of productive practice does. It’s the same with virtuoso musicians. They don’t consciously process through where to put their finger next. They’ve practiced putting the finger where it goes so often and so well that it’s now in the category of reaction, not response.

But none of them started there. These well-trained, grooved-in reactions are the product of training their brain to respond, over and over again until the time between stimulus and response is so short, it’s really equal to a reaction.

That’s the challenge with mayhem. When it happens, your first instinct, your reaction, may not be the best response. In fact, it may only compound the problem. Learning how to widen the gap between stimulus and response is the key. Training yourself to give yourself a second or two instead of a millisecond or two between what happens and what you do about it is a process you get better at over time. That’s the nature of training. It’s not an event, it’s a process.

Did your mom or grandma ever tell you to count to 10 before you got angry? If she did, and if you tried it, you probably discovered that giving yourself that 10 second gap kept you out of a lot of trouble.

In marriages and families, to move from reaction to response when mayhem strikes, there needs to be a lot of counting to 10. Shoot, I’d be happy if I could pull off counting to 3 sometimes! The point is, when you give your prefrontal cortex time to catch up to your primitive brain so it can filter your response through a grid of thinking, you move from simple reaction to more productive response.

You can’t make mayhem go away. There’s no witness protection program to keep it from finding you. But you can learn how to widen the gap and give yourself a chance to respond. Do it experimentally. Give yourself grace. And partner with God on this. He wants you to learn how to respond more than you want to learn it. Call out to Him and count on Him for His help. It’s the best way to protect yourself against Mayhem.

From → Marriage, Parenting

One Comment
  1. Janice Arvo permalink

    Great advice! So true, too.

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