The power of the pause
DONNA CAMERON is the author of A Year of Living Kindly. Here she reflects on the importance of creating space between stimulus and response in everyday life, learning to master the art of the pause.
“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause,
to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.”
Some time ago, a friend happened to be looking at the huge collection of quotations I have tacked to a bulletin board covering one wall of my den. Inexplicably, she started to cry. Then she grabbed a pen from her purse and copied down this quotation from author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
“That’s it exactly,” she explained. “Whenever I’m tempted to take a drink, I need to pause in that space between stimulus and response. If I stop and think about it, I won’t drink. If I don’t, I slip and have a drink.”
I knew my friend was in AA and that sobriety was still a struggle for her.
I thought about Frankl’s words and saw how many things they applied to. Not just alcohol, but overeating, smoking, spending … any number of actions we take automatically with little or no thought. We allow an addiction or a learned response to overtake our free will. And, as Frankl describes, each time we don’t give in to the reflex response, we grow and claim our own precious freedom a little more.
His wise words are just as relevant to kindness. Approaching the post office not long ago, I saw a man blast his horn at a woman whose car was blocking his exit. When she didn’t move quickly, he blasted it again, and then a third time, even louder and longer.
I’d like to think that if he had paused, perhaps he would have chosen a different response. Maybe he would have shrugged and looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got time.” Or maybe he would have tried for a quick tap on the horn to alert her to his car, instead of three sharp and aggressive blasts.
I know I’ve been guilty of speaking sharply in response to someone else’s rudeness or bad behavior. But that’s their behavior. It becomes mine if I let their rudeness provoke me to similar conduct. I don’t have to do that. I have a choice. When I react in kind, it doesn’t improve the situation, and it doesn’t make me feel any better.
I also know that when I snap back at someone (as often as not, my spouse), it’s because I’m tired, feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, or – I admit it – hungry. A timely pause can prevent me from saying or doing something I’ll later regret. It maintains harmony. A timely pause enables me to adjust my course and be the person I want to be. It’s one of those lessons we learn and relearn over and over, until finally the pause becomes the automatic response.
A pause may give way to understanding;
it may silence hurtful words; it may avert a broken heart.
Instead of speaking or acting in instant response,
taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response
to activate – and why – has been transformative.
There’s a reason why our mothers used to tell us to stop and count to ten when we got angry. It’s the power of the pause. There are things that need to be said and things that don’t need to be said. If we pause to think before we speak, we generally know the difference.
Rotarians have the right idea. Rotary International – the service organization focused on human rights around the world – has a four-question test that helps members decide whether and how to act or speak. Before responding, they consider:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and friendship?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, they keep silent. Wise people, those Rotarians. Politicians could learn a lot from them.
There is enormous power in something as simple as a pause. It allows us to delay long enough to decide if the action we’re contemplating will really get the result we want. Sometimes, when we hit pause, we recognize that we should make that pause permanent and simply do nothing, say nothing. The pause gives us the gift of grace.
There is another time when the pause is a gift we offer ourselves – a gift of appreciation. Next time you perform an act of kindness, or you are the beneficiary of one, or you simply witness a kindness, pause and notice all the good things you are feeling. A pause allows us to acknowledge the importance of kindness in our lives, and to reaffirm the choice we have made to walk the path of kindness.
I would put the power of the pause up against the power of the Hoover Dam. It’s that big. A pause may give way to understanding; it may silence hurtful words; it may avert a broken heart. Instead of speaking or acting in instant response, taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response to activate – and why – has been transformative. In the space of that brief pause, I might totally change my reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause has always guided me to a better place.
A pause is not a vacant space. It’s a place of enormous potential and growth. It’s where we choose who we will be in this moment, and the next.
Kindness in Action:
Can you recall a situation where pausing before responding might have brought about a better outcome? Are there times when you know you are most likely to respond sharply or unkindly – such as when you are tired or frightened? Would a well-timed pause be welcome here? Set an intention to pause the next time your buttons are pushed. And the next time you experience or witness a kindness, pause to notice how it makes you feel.
Reprinted with permission from the author.