“Let’s pause and reflect”

April 2024
Ben Shragge

My dad’s favourite expression, “Let’s pause and reflect,” was a running joke in our family. We knew it as a cliche, a stock phrase emptied of meaning by overuse, rather than a thought-provoking insight. But here I am—on the yahrzeit of his death 12 years ago, still celebrating the arrival of my infant son—pausing and reflecting on what it means to actually pause and reflect.

It’s easy to run on autopilot through days that turn to months that turn to years. You can be working for the wrong company, in a relationship with the wrong person or prioritizing the wrong values because of inertia, not because of any conscious decision. Only when time—our most finite resource—has passed, might the realization slowly dawn that we are not where we want to be in life. And by then, it might seem too late for us to change course.

In one of my dad’s favourite works of literature, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy describes a conventionally successful man whose “life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Only on his deathbed, while reflecting on his loveless marriage and obsession with status and money, does he think, “It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up.” Only while suffering physical torment does he realize that “the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interest, might all have been false.” He had been too busy, too unreflective, to consider the possibility earlier.

We do not need to wait until death’s door, or to be prodded by suffering, to evaluate our lives. That’s what frequent pausing and reflecting is for: to consider who we are and where we’re headed before we’ve arrived at our final destination. An example comes from a friend of mine whose elderly parents live in China. He makes a point of visiting them once a year because he’s reflected that, based on their age, a limited number of such opportunities are left. He does not want to be at his parents’ deathbeds, or visiting their graves, wishing he had spent more time with them while he still could.

Many of us, myself included, have stumbled into big decisions rather than making them. Sometimes that’s because they didn’t seem like big decisions at the time. In the above example, not visiting your aging parents for a year doesn’t seem like a big decision. But cumulatively, a series of such small decisions can result in a big one: not seeing your parents again before they die. My friend reflected on this possibility and implemented a plan to prevent it. He did so after appraising both the facts—older people have a shorter remaining life expectancy—and his values—which place time with loved ones above the expense and inconvenience of international travel.

But our decisions are not always made after weighing evidence, looking inward and then forming a plan. Being childless, out of touch with your family, in grad school or constantly at work could all be deliberate choices, the outcomes of deep reflection. But they could also be the result of waiting too long, reluctance to reach out, comfort with the familiar or pressure from others. To pause and reflect is both to question our decisions and to be aware that we are always making decisions, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time. We may then, after unpausing, have the insight to decide differently.

Even on his deathbed, it’s not too late for Ivan Ilyich. In his final moments, wracked by pain, he changes his outlook on himself and those around him and finds peace. We can take a wrong turn in life, but so long as we’re still alive, there is always another crossroads and a chance to change direction. Upon reflection, we can see that there are other goals to pursue, other people to be with, other principles to live by. Or we can see that we are on exactly the right path and choose, with renewed intent, to carry forward. Holidays and sabbaths, celebrations of birth and commemorations of death: all are opportunities to pause and reflect before putting our reflections into action.