The Power of a Pause

October 8, 2010

My first year of college English, they required us to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I slogged through 200 pages of torture and gave up. I succombed to the deadly freshman habit of buying the Cliff Notes version and answering the questions from there. The professor never caught on – which in later years made me suspect she had not read it all either.

It is almost unreadable. Joyce used every experimental literary technique to describe Leopold Bloom’s meanderings around Dublin. Occasionally, Joyce jettisoned punctuation entirely, squishing words together like commuters on a morning train – no spaces, no commas, no periods. In short, no pauses at all. As I said, it was torture. This technique, called “stream of consciousness writing”, was later perfected by Faulkner and Updike, but first flourished in the fetid garden of Joyce’s writing.

Yet, as readers, we long for those pauses. They afford us moments of reflection and a chance to catch up to the hurried pace of the writer. The writer is like the parent walking headlong to an appointment and the reader is the child running after, hindered by much shorter legs and no idea of where dad is going. Periods, commas, semicolons, colons, dashes…those three dot extensions I just used…all allow the mind a moment to breathe.

Reflective thinking is dead without a measurable amount of pauses. As Ken Gire says in his book “Seeing What is Sacred”, “Without creating spaces of time in our lives, we stunt whatever growth the events were meant to produce”.

Consider this random collection of pauses that we pass by daily:

  • The Sabbath Day (Saturday or Sunday, depending on your tradition)
  • Sunrises and sunsets
  • A kiss
  • The moment you lay there before you fall asleep and the moment you lay there after you wake before you get up.
  • The word “selah” in the Psalms. It means “pause and consider”
  • The seventh-inning stretch in baseball.
  • The moment when your bladder wins and you head off to the bathroom. Also known as “the pause that refreshes”.
  • The drive home from work
  • The moment the preschooler goes down for their nap
  • Waiting for an appointment to start

One day last year, I sat home on a rare evening and watched television. I don’t do that very often because I find it a waste of mind and time, but also because I am terribly busy with counseling in the evening. What I observed amazed me. They no longer have commercials in between programs. They go immediately from one program to the next. I can guess why they do it though. They don’t want you to reflect on whether you should keep watching or turn it off completely. They don’t want you to pause in your evening’s choices and consider the best use of time. They want you to mindlessly choose them.

A pause is for reflection, for planning, for reconsidering and delving. Can you do this? Why did you do that? Where am I going? What hasn’t been done? What does that mean? These questions lie buried under six inches of hurry and can only be unearthed in the pauses.

To pause reflectively simply means to take a few minutes to consider past, present or future and where it fits into the larger picture that is your life. Why not add a few more pauses tomorrow? Here are some places we could deliberately insert more pauses:

  • Park farther away from your place of work and use the walking time to pause.
  • During drive time, limit the outside noise and reflect.
  • Actually take a five minute break every two hours and don’t use it to play solitaire or check email.
  • Close your eyes even if others are around.
  • Deliberately not watch a favorite television program. Choose one program a week and spend the time reflecting instead.
  • Walk the dog and let that pause send your mind other places. The dog will love you more and you will notice things you’ve ignored.




  1. So true Mike! Great post, makes me reflect. Have you read Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”? He affirms your argument.

    • I haven’t read it yet. What is it about?

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