You wouldn’t fire a gun without aiming, would you? So, why would we act without thinking? When we live as robots doing whatever feels good instead of whatever is best for us, there is a heavy price to pay. Replacing thoughtful behaviour with thoughtless acts leads to material, mental, and physical suffering: lost dreams, emotional turmoil, and bodily pain and illness.
Let’s look at the sequence of events that creates so many problems in our lives. FIRST, an event takes place. Perhaps my wife frowns at me and rolls up her eyes in exasperation. Or maybe my boss yells at me. Or someone throws a half-eaten hamburger out a car window, and it lands smack in my face. SECOND, the event triggers a thought such as, “Oh! Oh! My wife is mad at me again!” Or, “My boss is such a jerk!” Or, “I’d like to get a fat, juicy hamburger and squish it in that slob’s face.”
THIRD, the thought immediately brings up an emotion. I might become angry, surprised, perplexed, confused, excited, or frightened. Although I don’t realize it, the emotion I experience is not caused by the event that just took place, but by a memory of a somewhat similar event in my childhood. For example, if my boss yells at me, this may trigger a childhood memory of my father yelling at me. And the feelings I had at that time of helplessness, anger, and fear are suddenly relived. I think my boss is the cause of my racing heart, sweaty palms, and anxiety, when, in fact, my dead father causes it!
FOURTH, we take some action. This is the crossroad. One of two things can happen. One is stupid and the other, intelligent. The stupid thing to do is act in the heat of the moment, without thinking things through. In other words, we behave emotionally rather than rationally. For instance, I may shout at my boss, “I’m sick of your griping; I quit!” This is a stupid thing to do because rather than solve a problem, it creates a new, and bigger, one. How will I raise my family and pay my bills, when I get fired?
Sadly, acting emotionally instead of rationally is commonplace and the cause of much needless misery. The smart thing to do when emotions grip our imagination is to STOP and THINK before we act. Okay, so my boss yelled at me. But why is he my boss? Isn’t it because he has more experience and knowledge than I do? Doesn’t he present an opportunity for me to learn more, grow more valuable, and become a team player? If this is the case, rather than creating a problem by quitting, why don’t I solve a problem by telling my boss, “Whoops! Sorry for upsetting you, boss. When you have a moment, can you review with me what I’m doing wrong and how I can improve? I’m sure with your guidance I can become a valuable team player.”
Granted, it’s not always our fault. Our boss could be screaming at us for no good reason. But we have a brain and a heart, don’t we? Use them to act reasonably and compassionately. Maybe your boss is having a hard day. When you’re doing a good job, you have no cause to cower in fear or seethe in anger, so just smile and say, “S-o-r-r-y!” Your pleasant attitude may be just what the doctor ordered for your boss. Your warm smile and understanding may act as a soothing balm for his raw nerves.
The lesson, then, is to STOP whenever you become aware of your emotions urging you to act. Your actions should be dictated by your rational mind, not by your irrational impulses. Mind you, it’s not easy at first. It’s like learning how to breathe from your diaphragm instead of your chest. But it’s a lesson that we’ve got to learn. Either events control us by triggering thoughts emotions, and rash behaviour or we control our lives by taking rational action. The choice is like driving to the destination of your choice, or being a passenger with no control over the directions, or worse yet, like being carjacked and taken where you don’t want to go.
I don’t want to create the impression that our emotions are our enemies. They certainly can be, but they can also be good friends. Again, it boils down to choice. It’s a matter of choosing positive emotions to fuel our actions and processing negative emotions to act rationally. For example, enthusiasm, passion, ambition, and courage can be powerful motivators for positive action. Similarly, we can enrich our lives and enhance our happiness by allowing the wonder of life and the beauty of the arts to tug at our heartstrings. Bathe in joy, but work through resentment. After all, faultfinding, criticism, self-pity, fear, and blame keep one in a rut, preventing progress, and may develop into a chronic negative attitude. But determination, commitment, patience, and optimism heal one’s mind and body and pave the way for success.
Choose to nurture emotions that uplift you and think through emotions that hold you back. Follow the example of Og Mandino (1923 ~ 1996) by using positive emotions to reinforce life, “If I feel depressed, I will sing. If I feel sad, I will laugh. If I feel ill, I will double my labor. If I feel fear, I will plunge ahead. If I feel inferior, I will wear new garments. If I feel uncertain, I will raise my voice. If I feel poverty, I will think of wealth to come. If I feel incompetent, I will think of past success. If I feel insignificant, I will remember my goals. Today I will be the master of my emotions.”
Our emotional life also defines us. We may be knowledgeable, but so are countless others. It is our heart that distinguishes us. Our character is not based on what we know, but on how we act; not on what we have, but on what we are. Live with the understanding that helpful behaviour is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion. True, where there’s no emotion, there’s no motive for violence, but it’s equally true where there’s no emotion, there’s no motive for love.
Returning to my earlier example of the person who lost his job because he quit in anger, he suffered material loss (his income), mental anguish, and poor health as a result. Let’s look at the last point, health, for a moment. Our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and emotions have an impact on allergies, asthma, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, impotence and sexual dysfunction. Even accidents, dental cavities, and back pain! In fact, probably 90%, or more, of all illnesses are either caused by or adversely affected by negative emotions. The opposite is also true, for as Dr. Bernard (Bernie) S. Siegel writes, “Patients who get well when they’re not supposed to are not having accidents or miracles or spontaneous remissions. They’re having self-induced healing (brought about by positive thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and emotions).”
Well, I guess it’s decision time. What are you going to do? Shoot without aiming? Or think before you act?