In an instant we can choose to put out the fire or ignite the fuse.
From the time we were first married, Kevin and I have frequently visited my parents at their cabin in the mountains about 75 miles south of Provo. A number of years ago, while we were preparing to come home after one of those visits, my young son needed to get something out of our locked car, so I gave him the keys and told him to be careful to not lock the keys in the car.
A few minutes later he returned, looking a little sheepish. He hesitantly, but bravely, confessed that he had locked the keys in the car. What ensued was one of those moments that my children still refer to many years later: “Do you remember what Mom did when the keys were locked in the car?”
Suffice it to say, I let my emotions take over. I raised my voice, and I even kicked the car tire. Then my father calmly reminded me that I had roadside-assistance insurance for times like this. His gentle reminder instantly calmed me. I called roadside assistance, and we were soon on our way home.
My father’s calm reaction to my outburst quickly and powerfully reminded me how I should act. Although I already knew how I should act, seeing his example provided me with a distinct reminder that has guided me throughout the rest of my life.
I was blessed with a similar example when I attended BYU as a nontraditional student—returning to school after our youngest child began elementary school.
One day before class began, I was visiting with a classmate when a young man who also attended the class walked into the room and started to yell at my classmate. The young man was obviously very angry. I didn’t know what had happened between them. However, I was shocked that this was happening at all. I wasn’t sure what to do. I even wondered if I should go get security.
While I was surprised at the original confrontation, what happened next was even more surprising. My classmate, whom I had been talking to, stood up to face the young man. I thought, “Oh no, a fight.”
But my classmate quietly and calmly said, “I am sorry that I have upset you. What can I do to make this right?”
I remember sitting back in my seat and thinking that this response was one of the most mature things I had ever witnessed. The young man suddenly stopped—as if all the wind had just been knocked out of him. They both sat down in their seats. The two of them began to have a calm discussion, and that was the end of what could have been a very explosive situation.
My classmate had totally defused the situation with a quick, quiet, and calm response. Not only did he remain calm, but he responded with the “soft answer” that Proverbs teaches us will turn “away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).
In every situation—even those that are packed with high emotion—we all have our agency to choose how to act. Someone observed that “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response” (unknown author quoted by Stephen R. Covey, Living the 7 Habits: Stories of Courage and Inspiration [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999], p. 21). In other words, there is always an instant in which we decide whether we will put out the fire or ignite the fuse.
Peggy S. Worthen is the wife of BYU president Kevin J Worthen (BA ’79, JD ’82). This essay is adapted from a devotional address delivered on Sept. 6, 2016.