As soon as I woke, I had the sense to keep quiet and then proceeded to go about the day in this self-imposed silence. It’s something I haven’t done in a long while and there are obvious reasons for that. Silence is hard enough, but when I don’t get to ease its weight by using words out loud, it is something all together different. As someone has once said, “To yield the tongue is to yield everything.”
A significant thing yielded is control. When we don’t speak we let go of the presumed need to defend ourselves to…ourselves, the universe, God, or others. Controlling the uncomfortable ness of silence is simply done by speaking. There’s a scene in Life where the main character, Charile Crews, is telling a suspect about what solitary confinement in jail was like: ”The first six months I didn’t talk to myself. I did push-ups, you name it, but I didn’t talk to myself. The next six months…I started talking to myself. And the next six months after that, well, you don’t want know what that’s like.” Six months in isolation without a word. Imagine it. But sooner or later in order to not lose control of his sanity, he speaks, even if it is to himself. And it’s probably not much different than why the presumed “crazy” street person talking in fights with himself – both are trying to control the demons that come if words aren’t spoken to stave them off.
My experience isn’t so extreme, but I am surprised how much I will talk to fill the silence with myself, and especially with relationships. Buechner wrote once, “…we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much.”
As I went on with the day of not speaking, I had to go to the library to pick up some books. Walking the eight blocks downtown I dodged any possible interaction with another human simply to maintain the quiet. Speechless in isolation is one thing, but speechless amidst others is almost impossible. Lucky for me, nobody talks at Libraries. But it took some conscious efforts to not even say the passing “hello” to strangers, a normal courtesy especially for someone like me from Texas.
There are stories of people who having lost a sensory method have increased sensitivity in their others, i.e. a blind man can hear things a seeing man can’t. To some degree I experienced this on the walk home and increasingly through out the day. When you choose not to speak you no longer have to think of what you are going to say anytime, and so can hear and see things around you in a more acute way. So, come evening as I made my way to Pablo’s to meet a friend – knowing this was the end of my now 24 hours without speaking – the amount of people walking the neighborhood by themselves but talking on mobile phones was amazing. They stood out like clowns at a cocktail party. In one block I saw five people hand to their heads chatting away and not to anyone nearby. Five people using words to control the uncomfortable-ness of walking a few minutes alone in the evening, missing what was happening right in front of them as the sun set and then wind blew fall leaves up the sidewalk. Reminds me of Van Morrison singing, ”If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime, cuz your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”
When the Rabbis debate what God said on the mountain to Moshe, some say that the only thing God said was his Name. And that Name sounded like…breathing. Maybe that is why so many mountains take our breath away. If you have ever been on top of one, the last thing you do is talk, because there just aren’t words.
Something my day of speechlessness taught me was that I don’t need to be on top of a mountain to be caught by the beauty of life around me, I just have to be quiet enough to notice it. And it hopefully helps me listen to what is happening in another person’s life right before my eyes, and not cluttered with my words. Sometimes the life I start hearing is my own. Mr. Buechner might be right that the silence says too much, but it sure does make a difference when we listen…not adding to it.