Something that has long fascinated me is the story in the New Testament, John 8 to be specific, where Jesus — faced by people who are angry, even murderous — hits “pause.”
This is the story of “a woman caught in adultery,” which might mean what you think or it might mean something far more innocuous, like a Jewish woman smiling at a Roman solider. At any rate, the religious leaders, a.k.a. “the scribes and the Pharisees,” scrupulous keepers of the law, brought this woman to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
These leaders had done this, John tells us, to test and trap him. In order that, “they might have some charge to bring against him.” “Soft on adultery!”
At least for the moment, Jesus said nothing. The story continues . . . “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” After a time he straightened up and then said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
It’s an awesome response.
But what I draw our attention to isn’t his his cryptic brilliance, but the pause before he spoke. He bent down and drew with his finger in the dust. Wouldn’t we love to know what he drew or wrote? We don’t. We just know that surrounded by incensed men (it was all men) Jesus paused. He paused the action. Bending to the earth, he slowed down those bent on violent action. Why?
Maybe he paused to think? Maybe he saw something at his feet that intrigued him? Maybe he didn’t know what to say? We don’t know. We know only that he hit pause before again standing up straight and delivering the remark that resulted in rocks plopping, one by one, back to the ground as the deflated accusers trailed off to wherever they had come from.
A pause can be a useful way to defuse an emotional situation. It can also be a way to create or establish a boundary between yourself and someone else.
I know someone who always used to rush to answer her phone when it rang. Then it occurred to her that she could let calls go to voice mail. Now she lets most calls go to voice mail. If the caller leaves a message, she listens, ponders and then acts. Which might mean returning the call at that moment or extending the pause and calling later. Either way the pause has given her some distance, some time. It has created a boundary. Modern technology, which so often seems to drive us to make rapid and instant responses, has in this case provided a way to slow the action. Her practice of letting calls go to voice mail creates a boundary between herself and whoever is calling.
There’s so much in our information-heavy and anxiety-laden world that pushes us to react quickly, emotionally . . . without stopping to think.
I observe others creating a similar pause when someone suggests an idea for an activity or asks if they want to do this or that. My son, Nick, is brilliant at this. He almost never says an immediate “yes” or “no.” Usually he says something positive, but non-committal, like, “That might work,” or “that could be fun.” Or he may say, “Let me think about that,” or “give me a moment.” It’s not a “no,” that may make the other person feel rejected. But neither is it an immediate “yes,” that one may come to regret a little later. It’s a pause.
Pauses allow our responses to be more deliberate, more responsive and less reactive. Especially when the situation is tense, charged or potentially violent. I can’t say that I have always been good at this skill of hitting pause, of being responsive rather than reactive. But I try to do that and I value the tools which move me in that direction. One of which is inserting a pause.
I went hiking in the Olympic Mountains with two friends. We planned to ascend Mt. Townsend, one of the many peaks in that range. But we hadn’t anticipated doing so in snow. After all, it was still October. A sunny autumn day was forecast.
Arriving at the trailhead (snow and ice had begun to appear as we drove), we were surprised by snow — lots of it! The higher we went the deeper it got, from 8″ to maybe 14″ to 16.” We paused, looked at each other and said, “I didn’t expect this. I never thought of this.” But we were grinning. Like kids. Or maybe like fools.
It was beautiful. And like every first snowfall, magical. Here’s a photo from near the top of Mt. Townsend, taken by one of my hiking buddies, Mike Pierson.
The snow made us pause and realize, as one often does in the wilderness, that the world is big and unpredictable and we’re not in charge. We paused . . . in delight.