Wise Old Turtles

Well, I finally made the time to get out and kayak for the first time this season and enjoyed a beautiful trip down the Grand River this past Monday. It was a gorgeous day, and the flora and fauna were putting on a spectacular show. I had a quick, fun encounter with a river otter, saw a few groups of turtles sunbathing on a fallen branch near the river’s edge, enjoyed the dance of waving reeds, saw some turtles, glided peacefully below several pairs of gliding hawks, saw some turtles, appreciated some beautiful water lilies, watched a Blue Heron snatch a fish out of the river right in front of my eyes, and saw some more turtles.

The turtles (yes, there were LOTS of them) were in groups from two to over twenty and were fun to watch as I would approach them, coming downstream. I’m sure this middle-age kayaker in the creamsicle-colored boat caused quite a fright, and so very often as I would approach they would quickly jump off their perches to hide under water.

What became interesting was to see which ones would jump off and which ones would remain perched, eyeing me warily as I passed. Then the pattern starting to become clear: it was typically the smallest, youngest turtles that were the first to jump. Occasionally those first jumpers instigated other, bigger turtles into making bigger slashes, but typically it was the largest (and therefore presumably the oldest) turtles that were the most likely to remain above water as I would pass. As I had plenty of time to think about trivial things like which turtles jump into the water, an important lesson began to emerge. Something in the age and experience of elder turtles had led them not to more fear and caution causing a quicker jump, but ironically to accept a little more risk in order to avoid the hassle of having to swim back and then climb up to their previous perch. In short, the older turtles had learned a more wise response. While the kids and teenage turtles – the immature ones – were busy with their quick reactions, Uncle Yertle and his elder contemporaries knew when to respond, or more accurately, when to quietly and carefully wait to respond.

If you still reading and have made it this far into this analysis of turtle psychology, I’m positive you’re wondering how this can in any way be relevant to our lives. Well, then, let me share how I think it’s central to our lives, and I’ll lead with one powerful example.

Media coverage over the past week has been dominated by headlines in stories about the separation of families illegally crossing our southern border. I’m not the first to notice how vicious this debate quickly became, denigrating into a fight between two extreme positions. On one side we have the lily-livered liberals destroying our country by wanting to allow everyone and anyone into our country so that they can destroy our healthcare and education system overrun by the unsustainable demand these illegals place on them. And on the other side we have the inhumane, heartless conservatives, happily ripping screaming children out of the arms of their loving parents, enthusiastically copying Nazi soldiers sorting out family members on their way to concentration camps.

In other words, most people in the media–and those that take their lead–reacted like immature turtles instead of responding like wise ones. An issue as complex as our immigration policies will require much more subtle and nuanced approach, in spite of the relative ease of emotional accusation and even demonization. And the rest of our life is no different.

We don’t often think about the difference between reacting and responding, but in the subtlety that is real life there is a world of difference. A doctor can tap my knee and engender thoughtless reaction. And I can be demeaned and insulted and respond with nothing but kindness. So there is a world of difference between reacting and responding, and it goes far beyond how we encounter the global, national even local events we hear about through media. Reacting rejects wide perspective and deep thought. It is primarily emotional, superficial, and quick. Responding balances emotion with thought and God-given reason. It embraces the bigger view and appreciates the complexity and subtlety that are the realities of life. Reacting versus responding is often the difference between a good marriage and a bad one, between good parenting and ineffective and even destructive parenting. It’s even the difference between good and successful business practices and the opposite.

In the life of a Christian, the difference between reacting and responding can be the difference between seeking first the Kingdom of God and travelling the road to Hell. So, yes, it’s a big deal.

Over the next three weeks I will share excerpts from an article written in 2011 by Metropolitan Jonah, an Orthodox bishop in another jurisdiction in our country. His article entitled Do not Resent, Do not React, Keep Inner Stillness will lead us into a deeper reflection on the difference between our reactions and our thoughtful careful responses, and give guidance as we attempt to move more frequently from the former to the latter.

So for today, I encourage all of us to reflect upon the difference between a reaction and response at any level of interaction. Those turtles have enough to teach all of us for now.