Although in most cases from a Christian perspective, impulsivity needs to be kept in check, there is such a thing as a good kind of impulsivity. We see such “blessed impulsiveness” in the Apostle Peter and in the other Apostles who left their nets to follow Christ. There was no careful weighing the proposition or slowness to move, but instead a ready, cheerful, almost instantaneous wholehearted obedience. “They did not delay, they did not procrastinate, they did not say, ‘Let’s return home and talk about it with our relatives,’ but ‘they forsook all and followed,’ even as Elisha did to Elijah. Christ desires for us to have this kind of obedience, so that we do not delay for even a moment” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 14 on Matthew). This kind of “impulsiveness,” furthermore, brought about a beautiful transformation. Throughout Scripture, we see other examples of this blessed impulsiveness: “For if the graceless soul obeys God it puts off its ungracefulness, and becomes full of grace. ‘Saul! Saul!’ it was said, ‘why persecutest thou me?’ and he replied ‘and who art Thou Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus.’ And he obeyed, and his obedience made the graceless soul full of grace. Again, He says to the publican ‘Come follow me’ and the publican rose up and became an apostle: and the graceless soul became full of grace. How? By obedience. Again He said to the fishermen ‘Come ye after me and I will make you to become fishers of men;’ and by their obedience their minds became full of grace” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 2, on Eutropius). On the other hand, there are also examples in the Gospel of those who carefully weigh their choices, choose wrongly, and would have been better to follow their first enthusiasm like the young rich man who asked what he should do to attain eternal life.
In like manner, psychologists recognize a difference between functional and dysfunctional impulsivity, which is a fancy way of saying impulsivity that brings good results versus impulsivity that brings bad results. If dysfunctional impulsivity is expressed with the notion of “not thinking before one acts;” functional impulsivity is associated with “being quick on one’s feet.” Over twenty years ago, S. J. Dickman developed a scale for measuring functional and dysfunctional impulsivity. In various studies, functional impulsivity has been associated with venturesomeness, risk taking, enthusiasm, sociability, a high energy level, and optimism. Moreover, those with functional impulsivity were able to make decisions without waiting for a complete knowledge of the results of their decisions. In other words, they don’t waste their time and procrastinate, which also prevents people from completing what they want to get done. And while those with dysfunctional impulsivity certainly need assistance, there are some forms of impulsivity that can bring blessed results as we can see in the calling of the Apostles.
For those in the Church, though, the difference between dysfunctional and functional impulsivity is not simply based on the results, but on the state of the soul. The rational, not particularly impulsive, young rich man who did not accept Christ’s offer to follow Him was, according to the Fathers, very much bound by the love of his possessions that did not enable him to respond freely and easily to Christ’s most gentle presence. Saint John Chrysostom remarked, “In this example, see how strongly his passion manifested itself. Even though he came to Christ with joy and boldness, the passion so overwhelmed him and weighed him down that it did not allow him to answer Christ when commanded to cast aside his riches, but silenced him and caused him to go away dejected and sullen” (Homily 53). Just as passions can make one more impulsive in a dysfunctional way, so the passions can make one less impulsive in a functional way!
For those who are impulsive, it is certainly worthwhile to cultivate the positive traits of the functionally impulsive, namely optimism, maintaining a high energy level, and taking a risk when it comes to following the way of Christ. Responding to God immediately or straightway (εὐθέως) as the Apostles did is a powerful virtue that contains within it, humility, hope, obedience, and love. Going the extra-mile, turning the other cheek, and being a cheerful giver are examples of letting blessed impulses guide us. Those impulses certainly need to be cultivated. And they are certainly functional in so far as they have the function of keeping us on the path that leads directly to the kingdom of heaven.