For the first week of Lent I practiced silence. That means I didn’t talk for a week! (Well, at least not with my Mission Year team, but that is pretty much my whole life.) In Part I of this post, I wrote about why I chose silence. In Part II I will explore what I learned.
I had hoped that my silence would create moments of reflection. Instead of speaking, I would pause to consider the words that I wanted to speak. In this way, I would learn from my silence. I even hoped to create more space for prayer in the midst of interaction. I thought, “Silence will leave so much room in my brain for other activity!”
In actuality, that extra room in my brain was devoted to finding other ways to communicate. It takes a lot of work to be silent! There are constantly questions of how to engage with what’s going on without speaking. In fact, my first reaction was to be somber and non-participatory. But I quickly realized that silent doesn't mean non-existent! I was still present, and I still had to engage.
How did I engage? For starters, I found myself laughing a lot more. I consider myself a fairly active listener, verbally affirming what people say as they share with me. Laughter is a great way to do that without words. It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part; I wasn’t wracking my brain to figure out how to affirm people. It just happened. I laughed more.
Similarly, I smiled more often. My somber approach to silence quickly got old, and I embraced my usual warmth and felt a need to share in some way that I was enjoying what was going on. Again, not with much thought or intention behind it, I smiled more.
I also touched more. In some ways this was just practical. Bereft of my ability to call someone’s name or refer to them using their name, I had to tap them to get their attention or grasp their arm to show of whom I “spoke.” But touch communicates much more than information, and my touches, like my smiles, became a way to connect with people without words. Instead of showing that I cared by asking, “How was your day?” I would pat a teammate on the back or gently hold their shoulder for a moment to connect with them.
By removing my voice, I remembered that there are many more ways to communicate. We often choose what’s easiest and forget that some of the more meaningful ways to “speak” actually don’t involve words.
Silence also taught me trust. With words we say so many little things: “God bless you” when some sneezes. “Thank you” when someone blesses you. “Yes” when someone inquires if you’re finished with your plate. “Okay” when someone reassures that they’ll do the dishes later.
Without the ability to say those simple things, I had to trust my teammates in simple ways: that they knew I gave them my blessing when they sneezed, that I was thankful their blessing, that I heard their inquiries and would make my objections known if I had any.
But when I had objections, I usually had to extend grace. Conflict resolution, something my teammates and I value and practice, becomes incredibly difficult without words. When I was annoyed or hurt or misunderstood, I just had to let it go. Sometimes I was tempted to record the transgressions to share at the end of my experiment, but I took those times as opportunities to extend grace and forgive.
Something else that happened: I got lonely. I didn't spend any less time with my team during the week. But after a while, even laughter, smiles, and touch could not sustain me. I needed interaction! On the last night of my fast I did some incredibly silly things with a few of my housemates that stayed up later. While they tried to read or write or text friends, I kept doing ridiculous things to get their attention because I had gotten so little of it over the past few days. It wasn’t as though they had been ignoring me. Without words I drew less attention, so I was making up for it that night. My silliness was an expression of an isolation that I often felt during the week.
At certain times others joined in solidarity with my silence, sometimes with intention and sometimes with no other option. A few moments with others that I deeply appreciated during my silence:
- Denise sat with my at the table while I finished up my meal after everyone else had finished eating.
- Sophie and I walked to church together on Wednesday night and worshiped together at the service.
- On our long commute home from our weekly citywide gathering on Thursday night, Walter sat in silence beside me on the trolley…without music. He always listens to music on the trolley, so his simple act showed solidarity with my silence.
- Matt, from the Kensington team, came to our house on our Sabbath to watch Star Wars with me. All we did was sit and watch the movie.
There were moments when it was much more difficult than others to keep my mouth shut. Those moments usually came when I knew something that no one else knew. It killed me to not share. It was so painful sometimes that I had to leave the room to keep quiet. Those moments were not unexpected. In fact, you may remember from my first blog about this that I hoped this experiment would expose my pride and humble me.
Those moments became opportunities to practice submission. On one level I submitted to silence, restraining myself from sharing knowledge. On another level I submitted to what was agreed upon or decided by my team. I had to abide by a decision that was made without my special knowledge, a painful yet useful practice.
New ways of communicating, trust, appreciation, humility: these things I learned. So what now?
Well, silence was just the beginning of my Lenten journey this year. There are still several more weeks until Easter, and my team and I continue to withhold negative comments about others or ourselves. My silence was impactful indeed, but I can't continue in life without speaking. Speech is powerful, as James wrote in the Bible, "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one's life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (3:6). I've heard of Christian communities who live forever in silence to keep from unleashing the potential evil of the tongue.
But I don't want to live in fear of my potential sin. I'm striving toward the perfection of my whole being, including my tongue. Silence was impactful as an experiment, but ultimately the goal is not silence but refined speech. I'll continue to say hurtful things, I'm sure, but little by little I hope my words sound like those of Christ.
Want to read Part I? Click here!