Whenever we meet someone new, invariably we find ourselves asking the question, “So, what kind of work do you do?”  It’s a natural inquiry that expresses a curiosity about the other person, it helps us establish rapport with them, and it usually gives us a place to start gathering information and building a relationship. Yet, in a subtle but very real way, that question of what someone does reveals who we tend to be as a people and how we view ourselves and others: by the doing. 

Often (but not always) people’s daily work, their jobs and careers evolved out of something that interests them: teaching or working with animals or writing or crunching numbers or helping others heal. As a result, we are a people who tend to define ourselves and others through activity. Even if we don’t all do work that flows out of our passions and interests, we usually come to find a good bit of our identity in the work we do; in the individual and collective activity we engage in—and not just our vocations but the cumulative work of our routine, the fruit of our daily efforts. 

Many of us live with lives revolving around our calendars. We see life in little white blocks, and the blocks often have daily to-do lists that define them: a series of things we have to get done, tasks we need to perform, obligations we have to meet, small jobs we need to check off the list in order to feel the day was successful. There’s nothing wrong with a plan or with budgeting your time well or with wanting to be productive. In this life, we are given finite resources of time and talents. It’s a noble, life-affirming aspiration to use these to perpetuate beauty and foster justice and to radiate compassion. But many times, we mistake activity for productivity: we get a sense of worth from the number of activities we engage in. We see all movement as positive, regardless of whether that movement is actually making us healthier or more whole or more joyful. In fact, if we take a step back and look at our daily lives from a distance, we might see that much of what we do is negatively impacting who we are and how we feel about life. It is the doing that is doing the damage.

Many Religious traditions all value the rest, the pause, the non-activity. The idea of Sabbath is central to the Jewish and Christian faiths: the belief that a pause isn’t just necessary and healthy, but sacred: even modeled by God in the very act of creation. In the Bible, rest is commanded, not merely suggested. In these religious traditions, the Sabbath was a day of rest set apart to focus on God and on provision. I always loved the stories in the Bible of Jesus being unavailable. He did many things and had many responsibilities and was incredibly active, of course, but he also spent times in silence and solitude and stillness. He withdrew from the crowds. He put down all that was placed upon his shoulders, he created space from everything that was pulling on him, and he attended to his own fatigue and need. When he returned to the crowds after those pauses, he was able to see them with compassion, as “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:35-38). For someone growing up emulating the teachings of Jesus, a regular rhythm of rest was part of that following.

We can see the pauses as self-care, as internal recalibration, as emotional restoration, as a way of finding peace in the middle of the chaos around us. In the ceasing of activity, we can rediscover our worth disconnected from all our activity. We can realize our inherent value. In the temporary stillness, we can be reminded of our smallness and the vastness of the Love that holds us all.

I heard someone talking about trumpet player Miles Davis recently, and as you often hear people talk about musicians, the person said, “As much as his gift was about the notes he played, it was about the notes he didn’t play, about the spaces between the notes: the pauses, the rests, the silence.” I’d like to think that is a beautiful way to think about the daily music of our lives, that we are defined and redefined as much by the practicing of our pauses as we are by the things that we do between them.

The pauses are always more important than the credit we give them. In times of stress of indecision or uncertainty, often we can gain so much by not plowing through, not sustaining activity, not keeping up the frenetic pace. In those moments when life is spinning out of control, intentionally pausing helps us to subtract the urgency that can obscure the truly important and allow the problem to be right-sized. Pausing can usually bring clarity that we won’t find from doing more and working harder.

We are inundated with requests and needs and news. Now, more than ever, we need to withdraw to silence and stillness and solitude and disappear for a bit. Doing so isn’t a betrayal of our work or the people in our path. Rather, it is a way of preparing us to be fully present to it all. In the times when we pull away from the crowd (if we can), our minds are recalibrated and our reserves replenished, and when we return to the world, we are better able to offer our full, undivided selves. I believe as much as activists, we should be strategic inactivists, we should be people of the pause. 

I am excited to join you all at APCE Annual Event 2023 in Birmingham, as we take a breath together to find something there waiting for us, that which we and the world so desperately need: true peace and real rest.

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Jon Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. Over the past six years his blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, has reached a diverse worldwide audience, recently passing the 100 million views mark. A 25-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside of faith communities. His books include A Bigger Table, Hope and Other Superpowers, Stuff That Needs to Be Said, and If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk.