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Do you react or respond?

And does it matter?

· Future thinking,React,Respond

In the wake of Australia’s recent election results, many of us are reacting - the winners with the shock of elation, the losers with the shock of disappointment.

It’s natural to react: if nothing else, it proves we are still alive!

But reaction is just a first step. We are all familiar with the reactions of toddlers learning to assert themselves and establish an initial sense of self-identity by saying, No. A toddler’s first reaction to not getting his or her own way is often just to scream; or to reassert their desire for whatever it was had grabbed their attention.

As the toddler matures into an adolescent and then into adulthood, different abilities come into play: responses become more complex and nuanced.

In a recent edition of The Guardian, I read the story of a village in Wales, beautifully situated between the sea and the hills and now threatened with inundation as the sea levels rise; to the extent that the local authorities have decided that the village will eventually have to be ‘decommissioned’, returning the land to being a salty wetlands buffer between the sea and the land.

Naturally the inhabitants are shocked, some into denial, others into indignation, bitterness, and despair, others into confusion as they face the prospect of being the UK’s first climate refugees.

As we are all faced with shocking events, one way or another, it can be useful to reflect on how best to respond and to recognise that, whether we are dealing with personal misfortune or national loss, there is a process that happens. We can choose to engage with that process or not.

  1. Reaction. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response in terms of Stephen Porges’ vagal theory. Unless, of course, we find ourselves initially immobilised. 
  2. Reflection. Our human tendency is to try to ‘join the dots’, to make a coherent story that makes sense to us. While this works up to a point, when the future is indeterminate and/or threatening, as in the case of sea level rising (Are the predictions accurate? How far can they be trusted? What other factors are at play?  Etc, etc), it becomes increasingly challenging to make a convincing and meaningful story. 
  3. What should we do next? In terms of vagal theory, we move up to engage the frontal cortex and this manifests as social engagement, interaction with others. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we are faced with the dilemma that in some as yet to be determined way, we are all responsible for each other. We need to proceed on the assumption that I have your back and you have mine. Yet, culturally, socially and economically, we are still in thrall to an earlier version of ourselves where individual survival was best ensured by being part of a tribe that was in competition with other tribes. 

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. Do we act to preserve what seem to be our own immediate interests or do we look more widely to work out how to take into account a wider range of concerns and interests including the interests of those who will come after us? And if we choose to 'neglect' our own interests, then who will look after us?


I am heartened after reading Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness: 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, described by Bill Gates as ‘One of the most important books I’ve ever read - an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.’

Factfulness is a story of human progress and how our distorted perceptions so often misrepresent the facts.

I believe that we are moving - albeit far too slowly - to a more respectful, inclusive, supportive world. How we will get there is in play.

  • How do you see this happening in your world? 
  • And perhaps more importantly, what steps, small or larger, are you able to take along your road to a better, fairer world that is more supportive to all of us? 
  • Will you react or respond? 
  • And if you choose to respond from a place of social engagement with others, what form will that engagement take?
Factfulness is about ideas that make a difference - in this case, because we are reminded of 'the facts' and these facts point to the world being in a somewhat better state than many of us think much of the time.