Column: The Power of ‘the Pause’

By Edward G. Horstmann

“Can you pause that for me?”

That’s what we say to the person who controls the channel changer in the household when we are in the middle of watching a great movie on DVD and need a bathroom break. With the push of a button the characters on the screen freeze in place, and we can step away from the film and return to it without having missed a second of action.

If used well, the pause button can serve as more than a matter of convenience: it can help us to savor the rich resources for learning that are at our disposal. Students can stop watching an online course for a few minutes in order to jot down notes and consider the insights of the speaker. Artists who take courses electronically can select the pause button and practice some of what their teachers have demonstrated.

Only the imagination limits our ability to step out of the flow of life so that we can savor and reflect on its meaning. Birdwatchers may come to a sudden halt on a hike when they hear a bird whose song captures their attention. Athletes call timeouts in a game to reassess strategy.  When I was learning to play tennis, I had a coach who helped me to understand that it is possible to pause even in the middle of a point. When driven out of a position by a great shot, a player can hit a defensive shot in return, buying extra time to shift the momentum in the point or to move from one game plan to another.

The capacity to pause and take stock of a situation can give life meaning and depth. And sometimes, especially when forces around us threaten to overwhelm, that same capacity can save our lives.

I’m thinking of the actions of Wagner Dodge, who survived the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in 1949 thanks to his willingness to pause rather than panic when his life was at risk. Dodge was the foreman of a crew of smokejumpers who had been sent to fight the fire. At one point in their efforts a gust of wind caused the blaze to race in their direction. Realizing that he and his men could not possibly outrun it, he chose to act in a way that must have seemed counterintuitive to his colleagues. He took a moment to pause, and in that brief time used a match to set fire to the ground around his feet. That small fire burned out, leaving him in the middle of a charred patch of earth. When the flames moved in his direction, they traveled around the scorched ground, leaving him untouched. Although Dodge urged his companions to join him in this makeshift refuge, they sought instead to make their way to the apparent safety of higher ground. Unable to outrun the flames that were moving in the same direction, they all perished.

The experience of Wagner Dodge is not unknown to those who live at the fierce edges of life and who find the ability to pause in the midst of crisis, assess the situation, and act from wisdom borne in the moment. From time to time we hear in the news the stories of people from varied walks of life who act in courageous ways because they find within themselves the capacity to tap the power of the pause and become a force for good. In daily interactions, the willingness to hit the pause button can enable us to be ambassadors for grace rather than agitation.

A difficult conversation, well on its way toward becoming a hostile confrontation, can be transformed for the better when we are willing to pause the encounter, and return to the issue with greater sensitivity. When anxious, we can pause for a few minutes to breathe deeply and re-center ourselves. Instead of rushing into a decision because we feel pressed for time, what about embracing a peace that passes all understanding so that we can respond with less pressure and greater grace?

As summer unfolds, may this season give us much pause to take a loving look at our lives and what motivates us. What are the questions that need asking about who we are and what we are becoming? Where do we need healing and hope? Where might we find ways to enjoy life, and to make life less burdensome for those in need of encouragement?

And just think about how great it would feel to tell a story to a loved one about some event in the course of a day that could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t. When you are asked about how disaster was avoided, you will be able to say, “Well, things weren’t looking good, but then I paused…”

The Rev. Dr. Edward G. Horstmann is senior minister at Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich.

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