This archived article was written by: Kellie Henderson
Imagine this scenario- someone walks up to you on campus, at Wal-Mart, or at some other location, and shows you a question written on a whiteboard. They ask some simple question, like the date or time of a meeting or the location of an item in the store. Once you respond, he or she smiles, maybe offers a thumbs up, and walks off without saying a word or offering an explanation for their behavior. Does this strike you as odd? What do you conclude, that the person is hard of hearing or perhaps has lost their voice? Well, my fellow staff writer and friend Kara Heaton and I spent the better part of a week communicating in this way, and received a mixture of reactions. We decided to voluntarily give up speech, otherwise referred to as taking a vow of silence, for four straight days. Granted I did take a few hours off for an interview, I survived this time through hand signals, pantomiming, writing on my trusty white board, and sign language.
Heaton came up with the idea of taking a vow of silence, and I decided to join her. After planning for a few weeks, we decided to start on Monday, March 3. These were our rules- no talking, humming, singing, or loud laughing for four days. We could only speak if we had an obligation for school or work that absolutely required us to break the silence. We both used white boards to communicate and Kara could text (I left my cell phone at home … a brilliant move on my part), and we planned to begin Monday morning until Thursday at 11:59 pm.
The first day, I was excited to take on this adventure. I’ve always been the philosophical type, I want to see things that will change who I am, shake up my identity a little, then I’ll see where this new knowledge or experience has left me. It’s sort of like this quote- “Throw your dreams into the sky like a kite and you never know what it might bring back- a new friend, a new life, a new country.” I wasn’t ‘throwing a dream’ per se, but I was having a completely new experience, and who knew what I would learn from it? Anyway, for that reason, I was excited. Maybe, I thought, I’ll get some sort of existential experience that will give me a totally new insight into my life.
Of course, no journey is as simple as it is advertised on a brochure. The frustration kicked in abruptly and rudely, as I was expecting the silence to fill me with tranquility and patience. I found that it’s really frustrating to have to write everything down. By the time I answered a friend’s question, the conversation had changed direction and I felt totally irrelevant. I wanted to be able to explain things to the fullest, but I was limited to brief responses. My first venture into the cafeteria was humorous in retrospect, but nerve-racking at the time. While balancing a tray and a backpack, I haphazardly wrote my order, while gesturing at any additives I wanted in my food, relying on the interpretation of the staff and the help of my patient friends.
Often times I would have to ask someone on campus a question, so I wrote it down quickly and was often too impatient to offer any explanation for my behavior. When I tried this approach at the store, one employee assumed I was deaf, and assumed I could not hear what she was saying no matter how much I nodded my head.
However, this adventure wasn’t without insights. I’ve gained a great respect for monks who take a lifelong vow of silence, since my frustration was greatly amended at the thought of its impending end, and I was even counting down hours by the last day.
So often we fill silence with empty words, because it’s considered awkward to not speak for a few minutes. This silence was forced, seeing as I couldn’t change it, and I actually found it relieving. I was under no obligation to interrupt the silence, so I could just accept and even enjoy it.
The experience also helped me really listen. I have to admit; sometimes when I listen I am so enthusiastic about what I am going to say in response that I’m really waiting for my turn to talk. When I couldn’t talk, I took time to really listen and understand what someone was trying to say and have time to consider their point of view.
While I am thoroughly glad I took the vow, and am satisfied with the unique experience I had, it was a one-time thing. After a day, responses, explanations, conversation starters- basically anything that requires verbal communication, begins to build up and float around the brain. I felt like I was swimming in my own thoughts and world with little ability to actually contact real people. It’s frustrating and limiting, and it definitely is a trial of patience. If nothing else, I at least have one more experience I can check off of my list of things to do before I die.