The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

A pause for thought

with 5 comments

The eye runs over the text, or the sounds pour into the ear. The synapses spark into life, the soul twitches, and the mouth opens or the fingers begin to tap. Within moments, a response of penetrating brilliance and almost supernatural insight has been dispatched by some means or other, and the sage sinks back into semi-somnolence, waiting to be awakened again by the demands of another moment.

Or maybe not. Because the chances are that if said sage were to review his response even a matter of minutes after it first came to his mind, he would almost certainly – if he had any sense and were any kind of a sage – have had some further thoughts, might have considered some alternatives and possibly more substantial interpretations, taken into account some balancing perspectives, or simply realised that the thing said might have been far better said, or even ought not to have been said at all. A man who is “hasty in his words” is, almost by definition, no sage: “There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prv 29.20).

But the problem is that the nature of much modern communication almost demands an immediate response and provides multiple vehicles for it. See that tweet? Retweet it or reply. That blog post? Comment – now! That article? Write a riposte, or – better – tweet a 140 character riposte. That video? Dismiss it with a well-turned phrase. That contribution to a discussion? Slam it instantly! That Facebook update? Like it! Dislike it! Comment. Listen to that sermon. Too long? Listen to a clip. Listen to something else, look again, comment again, check again . . . quick, you might be missing something that has happened in the last ten seconds. Now, move on, keep moving, keep processing, keep responding, keep engaging. There is a time for thinking and there is a time for action, and this is no time for thinking! We have forgotten that “the heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Prv 15.28).

In past days, the very nature of media built in more time to consider, and even then men managed to obtain reputations for speaking without thinking. However, at the very least, it usually took more than a few seconds for a response to be given to a letter or a book. One had to sit, read, gather pen and ink, write sentences that could not be re-arranged when you had finished them, and paragraphs that could not be cut-and-pasted later on, not to mention the whole process of sending that communication. The pace was slower, the scope for careful, prayerful thought more evident. Now, words pour forth without, it seems, any consideration, forgetting that “in the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prv 10.19).

In fact, if we deliberately build the same checks and balances into our processes of consideration and response now, we will begin to enjoy some of the same benefits. When you skim the articles in your reader, some may catch your attention. Leave them for a few days and then go back to them. I can almost guarantee that much of what seemed magical at first glance will seem more mundane, much that seemed to throb with immediacy now lacks any pulsating urgency, much that seemed to gleam with brilliance has lost a little of its lustre, much that seemed to invite, even demand, an immediate response now seems a lot less important. Leave things even for a few hours and go back with a more patient and broader perspective and you will find that many things cease to appear very substantial or particularly relevant.

Now what is left? Anything of genuine pith and moment? Then the time has clearly come to respond! Really? Consider and even draft your comment, article or whatever other vehicle for response you might be using. Then stash it. Read it again after an hour or two. Stash it again. Sleep on it. Read it again. Does it still feel so necessary? Does it still seem so brilliant?

Or perhaps you have a more original piece, a review or an essay or somesuch. Perhaps it addresses the production of the moment or the spirit of the hour (some of these zeitgeists can take literally ages to develop!). Stew over it. Think about it. Then write it. Then stash it. Leave it for a day or so. Do those comments really need to be made? Does that criticism really need to be offered, or does it need to be made fairer and fuller? Perhaps it needs to be re-crafted or carefully qualified, for “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness” (Prv 15.1-2). Is that statement the fudgy, fuzzy product of the fear of man? Perhaps it needs to be honed and sharpened until the truth is clear. Have you refined a legitimate criticism to the point at which it really says nothing at all? Sometimes names should be named, and sometimes not. Which situation is this? Sometimes you should answer a fool according to his folly, and sometimes not (Prv 26.4-5). What does this folly demand? Some praise degenerates quickly into mere flattery or empty verbiage, perhaps because it is too readily given and not reserved for substance which genuinely demands it. Or, even if you have said something worth hearing, have you said it well? Are they words fitly spoken like apples of gold in settings of silver (Prv 25.11)? Internal rhythms can rise and fall, vocabulary can be rich yet accurate, style can be pleasant and powerful (even if not necessarily polished) while the substance remains pointed and profitable (even if necessarily provocative).

So we walk away. Then we walk back later. We look around. Perhaps someone else has already seen the issue more clearly and said what you had hoped to say more effectively. Perhaps you will simply realise that what you thought you had to say was not as profound, as wise, as insightful, as you first thought. Perhaps you will realise that it is cheap, shallow, or crass. Perhaps you will appreciate that there is more to learn before you respond, because “he who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Prv 18.13). Perhaps now is not quite the right time to say it, for if a man is to have “joy by the answer of his mouth,” he will find that the best words are those “spoken in due season” (Prv 15.23). Perhaps you will realise that it simply does not need to be said at all, and that your best contribution to a debate – at this point at least – is silence, a refusal to clutter the conversation with inane chatter or thoughtless white noise: “He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips he is considered perceptive” (Prv 17.27-8).

If something is honestly helpful, genuinely important or strictly necessary, it is still likely to require saying after some further time has passed, and may be all the better said – for style and for substance – because of a pause for thought.

Immediacy can seem brilliant and penetrating by the very fact that you said it first, but might be the enemy of accuracy, profundity, or simply considered politeness. It may be witty, but it may not be wise. It is almost certainly better to be slower and wiser and kinder, perhaps sacrificing a reputation for sparkling repartee, than to have that reputation for champagne on demand while actually spouting ill-considered froth. The frother will always have his fans, but he may sacrifice genuine penetration and enduring wisdom and broad perspective on the altar of that reputation for razor-sharp banter. Of course, quick thought and deep thought are not entirely mutually exclusive, and sometimes words are all the finer and more timely for being the production of the minute. There are times when something is so evidently crass or so plainly wrong that the fact of its exposure or rebuttal requires little consideration, although the manner may demand more careful thought. Some things are so dangerous that they must immediately be taken out with the rapier of honest wit or the bludgeon of plain speech. There are people who are so thoroughly immersed in a topic, and who have sufficient gifts of mental organisation, recall of data, and clarity of communication, that their off-the-cuff comments in their particular area of expertise carry more weight than the ill-considered dross of a thousand pompous nincompoops. Nevertheless, quick and shallow tend to be closer friends than immediate and profound. “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas 1.19-20), and “whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles” (Prv 21.23).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 20 October 2011 at 09:29

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Would you mind if I repost this (with credit links) on our site at please.

    In Him,



    Saturday 22 October 2011 at 14:24

    • Hello, Andy – thank you for asking. Please feel free to reproduce this at your blog.

      Jeremy Walker

      Saturday 22 October 2011 at 14:38

  2. […] posted at: The Wanderer Like […]

    A Pause For Thought « Aletheuo

    Saturday 22 October 2011 at 20:31

  3. […] A pause for thought Jeremy Walker persuasively argues for more pauses and less instants in our lives […]

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