Learning to Embrace Long Pauses

I’ve always been a rapid-fire communicator. I think fast, talk fast, and process my thoughts out loud. When I was in high school, my mother once dared me to talk for two minutes straight without a single pause. “Time me,” I said, and then I did it. 120 seconds of babbling about nothing without a moment’s hesitation.

Several years ago, I met a new friend who is much more deliberate in her conversation. At first, I wasn’t sure she liked me. I’d talk, and she’d sit in silence and smile slightly. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was she studying me? Had I said something stupid? Had I failed to make my points clear? In case it was the latter, I’d repeat myself often. But she would just continue to smile. Eventually she’d comment. In time, I came to realize she was comfortable with long pauses. I was not. Never have been. A pause is a hole. It’s dangerous. It’s something to be filled.

This came up recently in a disagreement with someone close to me. I rushed in with suggestions and solutions. I asked questions to try to see how I could help, but I didn’t wait long enough to hear the complete answers. I shared my feelings, and when this person did not share their feelings back, I assumed they thought I was wrong. It’s funny, isn’t it, that someone who communicates for a living could, at times, be a terrible communicator.

This pandemic is giving me new opportunities to sit with pauses. Everything has slowed down, even our answers. It’s not uncommon now for me to say to someone, “How are you feeling?” and for them to take a long breath before they respond. It’s not a simple question anymore, is it?

My artist friends, especially, are at a loss for words. They miss playing gigs and acting in shows and reading their poetry at gatherings. There’s no way to know when their revenue streams will bounce back. Most realize they need some other type of work for now, but where will they find it? Nearly everything about their lives is on hold.

My husband has always said he knows when I’m scared or upset because I can’t talk. It’s not that I lose interest in speaking, it’s that the words literally won’t come. He’s learned to be nervous when that happens. Last night, we went for our nightly walk, and I barely said a word. Our walks used to be when we caught each other up, but now we’re together 24/7, so there’s nothing to catch up. Our walks used to be when we planned trips we can no longer take or ruminated about the challenges of my business, which is somewhat shuttered for now.

We walked in silence. I wasn’t scared or upset this time, though. I had nothing to say, and I told myself that was fine. I decided to lean into the pause. And it wasn’t a hole after all. It was filled with lingering gazes at pink clouds, and curious glances at the neighbor’s new landscaping, and the sight of my own feet hitting the pavement. I did wonder what my husband was thinking, but decided to be okay not knowing.

Now don’t get me wrong, not long after we got home, I started talking again. There’s nothing wrong with who I am. No need to change myself entirely. That’s important to remember. But there’s nothing wrong with learning to let go of something that once caused you stress, either. Maybe it’s time we all got a little more comfortable in the pauses.

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