Resisting Reactivity

This sermon is based on chapter 6 of ‘Good and Beautiful and Kind’ by Rich Villodas.

Becoming someone who can remain present to oneself and to another, especially in times of disagreement or distress, is one of the most important things we can do to become whole. This is sometimes known as self-differentiation, or ‘calm presence.’ It is the natural outflow of a life that is marked by humility and contemplative prayer. It is how love is formed in us, It stands in contrast to the tendencies to anxiously attach to others or anxiously detach from them. What we need is the capacity to remain close – to ourselves and to others.

  • Remaining Close to Ourselves – Calm presence takes seriously the feelings, dreams, values and preferences that live within us. It listens to the stirring of the Spirit within us. This can be difficult because for some these feelings, dreams, values and preferences were never taken seriously by others. One skill to learn for emotional health is being able to state our preferences.
  • Remaining Close to Others – This includes maintaining a nonreactive presence with people who are reacting to you, reacting the impulse to attack or appease, and managing your own anxiety, rather than others’ anxiety.

The person cultivating calm presence is curious, courageous and compassionate.

The true test of calm presence is when anxiety is high. Anxiety manifests in the instinctual response to an immanent or imagined threat, and it can be expressed through anger, control, manipulation, avoidance, sarcasm and distraction. The alternatives to calm presence are emotional fusion (disappearing into the other person) or emotional cutoff (disappearing from the other person).

Examples of calm presence in the Bible:

  • David and Saul – In 1 Samuel 17, David showed closeness to himself and to Saul in a time of high anxiety. When Saul offered his armour, David was not callous or dismissive. He tried it on, showing openness, curiosity and humility. He also remained close to himself and realised that he stood a better chance fighting in a way that he was more accustomed to and so he courageously rejected the armour. He was not controlled by the anxiety of the moment or by Saul’s attempt to help. He was thoughtful and decisive.
  • Aaron and Israel – This is example from Exodus 24 that shows what happens when calm presence is lacking. While Moses was meeting the Lord on the mountain, the people demanded from Aaron a god they could worship and trust. Aaron agreed to the command despite being commanded a few days earlier not to make a graven image. When Aaron was challenged he blamed the demands of the crowd. He had been overtaken by the anxiety of the crowd, leading to a serious lapse in judgement.
  • Jesus and the Crowds – No one cultivated calm presence better than Jesus. He remained close to the Father, himself and others in times of great anxiety. He constantly made decisions that puzzled others, and yet he never did so without remaining close to those around him.

Some of the ways we can cultivate calm presence include:

  • Emotional Self-Regulation – Paying attention to what our bodies are telling us about our anxiety. This is not suppression or spiritualising. It is training our minds and souls to resist the force of our impulses. Emotional self-regulation practices can include walking, concentrated breathing, painting, meditating and praying. Through such practices, we give our bodies and souls the care they need in order for us to relate to others from an unanxious place.
  • Naming the Messages – Carefully exploring the deceptive messages that we are believing in order to reject them. This work can take a great deal of time but is critically needed for the sake of our wholeness and love.
  • Speaking Clearly – Learning to speak in a way that promotes understanding, healing, grace and connection. Healthy speech is respectful, honest, clear and timely.