This is a column in praise of the pause. I’ve been pausing for things all my life, but I recently realized that some pauses ― not the traffic-signal type ― contain hidden wealth.
The other day I was trying to remember who sang “If You Could Read My Mind.” I pictured the singer’s face and heard his voice. I could even hear the syllables of his name in my head as if someone were tapping them out on a drum: Thump, thump. Pause. Thump, thump. But the name didn’t come, and I had to resort to Google to find Gordon Lightfoot.
The friend who was with me had just failed to remember the name of another singer, so we commiserated. This is probably age-related. Then she told me about her coping mechanism.
In situations where she cares about the outcome, she pauses before she speaks. She takes an extra moment, not only to think about what she’s going to say, but also to make sure she recalls the names of the people or places she plans to mention. This adds a second or two of think time ― a short pause ― but no one notices.
I don’t need this tactic with friends, especially those who forget things, too, but it’s great for formal situations. I’ve begun to try it.
My second new pause is very different. This one is solitary, although it takes place immediately after I’ve been with other people.
Perhaps I’ve had lunch with someone, or we’ve gone on a walk together, or talked on the phone. After we say good-bye, I tell myself not to do any of the things I’m tempted to do.
Don’t check my smartphone. If I’m in the car, don’t turn on the radio. If I’m at home, don’t go to my computer. For about five minutes I allow myself no distractions.
I use this time to do two things. First, I make a mental list of tasks related to the interaction I just had, especially things I might have missed. For example, after a recent breakfast with a friend I realized that she might need a ride for her upcoming minor surgery. I called her back.
The second part of my pause is the best part, the part that has yielded information I receive in no other way.
What I do is think about the time I just spent with the other person, especially what I’ve perceived but haven’t brought into my conscious thought. When I ruminate along these lines, I often recognize changes people have made in their lives, new steps in our relationship with each other, or tender moments I might later want to relive.
Spending this extra time also makes it more likely that I’ll remember our interaction. Even when it doesn’t, I enjoy the pause for what it is, and usually, that’s enough.
Recently a friend brought her guitar over and played a special song for me. That was a precious moment, a moment to savor, and it’s not the same if afterward I simply get in my car, close the door, and start thinking about something else. When I do that, I lose out.
Finally, there’s the pause I’m working on but haven’t accomplished yet.
I’m not the type of person who immediately challenges what I read or hear. That kind of person is good at debate, and I never was. I don’t want to become adversarial, but I’d like to learn to think matters over more completely. I would especially like to learn to respond more analytically to new “facts.”
In a recent article, environmentally-aware novelist Barbara Kingsolver tells us how she analyzes new information, in this case about climate change. “I think about motive. Who has a dog in this fight? If the person making the statement has something to gain from my believing it, then it’s suspect.”
She got me thinking: If I can learn to consider the motivation of someone who is trying to persuade me of something, in print or in person, I will be a wiser human being.
This was brought home to me in the many months I read about Antarctica before and after my trip. Some of the explorers whose accounts I pored over were following cultural rules about what to write and what not to write.
British explorers, in particular, people like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackelton, didn’t confess to fear, let alone despair in themselves or their men. British masculinity demanded the stiff upper lip. This limited what I could learn from their self-reports.
I began to think about what they did not write, in addition to what they did write, but I found that doing so took time. Not long periods of time, but moments snatched here and there ― short but essential pauses ― like the pauses you take when you’re sipping a drink or puffing on a cigarette.
To pause without doing either of those things, that’s the skill I want to master.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]