The Power of the Pause

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.”  (Rollo May)


Attribution: Donna CameronBetween Stimulus and Response

Some time ago, a friend happened to be looking at the huge collection of quotations I have tacked to a bulletin board that covers one wall of my den.  Inexplicably, she started to cry.  Then she grabbed a pen from her purse and wrote down this quotation from Stephen Covey:

“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 am 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 looked at the quotation again and saw how many things it applied to.  Not just alcohol, but overeating, smoking, spending… or 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 Covey describes, each time we don’t give in to the reflex response, we grow and claim our own precious freedom a little more.

I think his wise words are just as relevant to kindness.  Yesterday in a parking lot, 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.

Admittedly, some people are just Bozos, and they always will be.  But 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 a real or perceived stimulus of rudeness or bad behavior.  But that’s their problem.  It’s only mine if I let it be, if I let their Bozo-ness provoke me to similar behavior.  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 (more often than not, my spouse), it’s because I’m tired, feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, or—I admit it—hungry.  A timely pause can keep the snapping-turtle in her shell, and maintain harmony.  It’s one of those lessons we learn and relearn over and over, until finally the pause becomes the automatic response.  At least I hope it does.

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.

The Rotary Club has the right idea (sudden segue, but stay with me).

Rotarians have a four-question test that helps them 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 is no, they keep silent.  Wise people, those Rotarians.

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, and the next.

“Kindness. Easy to do. Easy not to do. Choose the latter, no one will notice. Choose the former and lives may change.”  (Julian Bowers Brown‏)