David McCarthy, New Haven, CT

Seven Days of Silence

Seven Days of Silence

The History -Toward the end of the year 2009, I learned about a man named John Francis who stopped talking for 17 years. On his 27th birthday he decided to take a vow of silence. He liked it so much that he kept silent the following day as well and eventually 17 wordless years had passed. He even obtained a few college degrees culminating in a Ph.D all under his vow of silence. I yearned with fascination at what I could learn about myself if I gave up talking, so I decided to try it for a week. Not a laugh, not a sigh, nothing. The only sounds I allowed myself to make were biological: sneeze, cough, belch, etc.
(An Article On Him)

The silence was remarkably insightful, it forced me to think more and act less. I was able to see where conversations would go without adding my two cents. Above all I learned that it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.

01.01.2010 DAY I
At the stroke of midnight dawning 2010, I silenced myself for seven days. I was at a friend’s house-party celebrating the New Year. By no means what this a typical place to be silent. Some knew my plan, others did not. Those who knew were awed by my vow, and those who didn’t thought there was something wrong with me. I celebrated the morning of 01.01.2010 silently till about 3:30 am. That night I had a dream about my silence. I dreamt that words were for sale, and people could not talk unless it was meaningful or valuable to others.

The afternoon of 01.01.2010 my roommate and I went out to run a few errands, and I almost broke my silence streak. I belched in front of a man while getting a shopping cart at Wal-Mart. I immediately opened my mouth and thought the words “excuse me,” but never voiced them. Unfortunately for me that man’s thoughts of my behavior must have been foul. As hard as it was, I did not attempt to explain to him that I was under a vow of silence. Walking through the store I was in deep thought about people who actually couldn’t talk or only spoke a foreign language and how they might be judged because they couldnt voice a “excuse me.” Forcing silence on myself, I created the grounds to understand people in these predicaments. How can I or anyone for that matter help people if we do not truly understand our client’s perspective?

Wandering around the store for roughly 15 minutes looking for the stationary department, my instinct was to ask a floor representative for help. Being silent taught me that my instinct is not to look for things myself, but to ask for help; weakness learned. I eventually found the stationary department, where I then located a small dry-erase board to communicate with my client and his mother at work. I also used it to play monopoly later that night. Playing silently heightened my visual senses, as I could no longer rely on asking questions. I had to keep a keen eye on my properties, and I even made a few repetitive sayings chart on my dry-erase board: “$200 for passing go,” “you owe me rent,” and “NO WAY” for those who offered me horrible deals for my properties.

What I noticed more of this time around was not how I would react to people, but how they would react to me. A few of my friends often felt confused. They felt because I was not talking that they could not talk to me. They voiced this strange anomaly with laughter.

01.02.2010 DAY II
For most of the day I remained at home catching up on some computer work, but later that night I went out to socialize with some friends at a local pub. I decided to try out my dry-erase board on the public that night, so I strung it around my neck. Not talking was making people want to talk to me more; they clearly stated so. I met a very interesting young gentleman who was fascinated with my whiteboard. Our conversation started out casually as I wrote my limited responses on my board, but it slowly evolved into an intellectual conversation about the dynamics of the human brain. He studied neurology, and focused on the effects that music has on brain functioning and depression. I did not need words to have an intellectually stimulation conversation, who would of ever thought? A lot was learned from this. For instance, less is more. I also met a couple of girls who offered me to sit and eat some of their french-fries with them. We had a great conversation, mostly Q&A. I also met someone that said “until he met me his night was uninteresting.” I even met one of the musical talents that night and discussed producing a music video for them; he gave me a copy of their new EP to review.

I heard over and over that because I could not talk and my answers were limited to what little space I had on a whiteboard, that people were choosing their questions more carefully, “it’s filtering out all the useless chitchat.”

My silence still provoked confusion, as many people would repeatedly try to write their responses on my whiteboard. If I write a response to their oral question, does that not imply that I could hear? There were a few people that looked at me as if I was mentally disabled. I was not shocked, I had a dry-erase board hanging around my neck at a bar.

I ordered two drinks that night and had two totally different experiences. The first time around it was a female bartender and it went very smooth. The second time it was a male and not so smooth.

Drink one- I wrote down my drink of choice on my board, Absolute & Club with lime, and held it up. She read it from about 30 feet away and started to make it. In all actuality it was easier to order a drink with a whiteboard than with verbally. I stood out and the bartender’s eyes were not affected by bar room chatter. She delivered my drink without any questions, whether she judged me or not I will never know, but she did not make her thoughts or assumptions present to me. I liked that.

Drink two – The second drink was not such a pleasant experience. I wrote the same drink down and held up my sign. He came over with a face expressing complete puzzlement, and said “what’s with the board?” A few of my friends were present at the time, and they told him that I took a vow of silence. They left before he brought me my drink, and as soon as they did he asked me what I wanted to drink again. I went to rewrite it because I had already wiped the board clean. He said “no don’t write it, just tell me.” As I shook my head no he told me he would not tell my friends, I just kept writing my order down. He was mocking me and shaking his head. His friend had suggested to him that I was mute but the bartender said, “No he’s not.” As he placed my drink down on the bar, he said “congratulations, you are my most annoying customer of the night.”

This is what my silence is all about, personal research into human social behavior, and I received a valuable piece of information from this guy. Here was a man that knows nothing about me, yet he made a call that I was not a mute. There was no doubt in my mind that he remembered my drink order, I knew he was just testing to see if I would break my silence. He said he would not tell my friends, as if they are who I am doing this for.

This is why I believe diets never work, because people tend not to do things for themselves. People also tend to be two sided. One side is the person you see, and the other is the side they don’t share. I have been told by many that if they were me, they would be singing in the shower or in the car when no one is around. They say they don’t believe that I don’t because they would. My response to them is, “I’m not you.” What I am doing is a personal challenge, a test of will. Not too many people can understand this because will power is not all that common these days.

I also got a lot of people saying that they wanted to get me to break my vow. I believe this to be an unconscious urge of jealousy. I relate this to the behavior of a child when their sibling or friend receives a toy that they want really bad. They either take it from them or break it so that no one has it. They can’t stand that someone else has something that they want. I believe what I experienced with the second bartender was an adult generalization of this behavior. People fear what they don’t understand, and not many people understood my silence. I am not saying that he wanted to be silent, but I had something he did not, control. He wanted to make me talk, but that was out of his control. So I guess that’s what made me annoying?

01.03.2010 DAY III
I was home for just about 22 hours. I left my house at about 3:00 to pick up a friend at the train station and we both went grocery shopping. It was beyond cold out; I don’t like to be outside when it hurts. I returned home a few hours later and ate dinner. Not too long after that I fell into what felt like a winter hibernation coma. I was asleep for about four hours.

I did a lot of reflecting on this cold snowy day. I processed what everyone said to me. I found myself focusing on how people keep looking for a flaw in my silence. If I sneeze, people acted like their favorite sports team just defeated its rival. “That was a sound, it counts, you broke!” I am doing this to myself, therefor I make the rules. How can I deny myself a sneeze, furthermore why would I? There very satisfying. Anyways, what people are failing to see is it’s not about making sounds, or seeing how long I cannot speak, it’s about the experience.

I see this time and time again in my American culture, we are a very satisfaction driven society. Everyone wants to cut to the chase, or hurry up and get there. Taking this attitude towards life heavily impacts our perspective on the world around us. If those who seem to unconsciously want me to fail would stop and take a few steps back, they might see the whole picture. Maybe they will even realize that there is no victory to achieve here. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the experience. Even if I slip I will keep going. I am simply doing this to alter the way I interact with the world and gain a new perspective.

By eliminating a sense or strength, we can grow in ways we couldn’t even fathom. It’s similar in baseball when a batter on deck will swing a bat with a weight on it. Practicing in a world that weighs more, when it becomes time to bat he will remove the weight and feel a lighter swing and a stronger self. A BMX NBL racer will practice in a comparable way by tying a car tire to his bicycle seat post and riding around town. He is practicing in a world of resistance and when the tire is removed on race day, he will also feel a sense of strength and experience a lighter faster self.

Similarly, I am creating a world where voicing myself orally is not possible. Once the curtain of silence is removed, I will have also gained strength. I will be capable of communicating and expressing myself nonverbally more efficiently. I will choose my words more carefully and be more aware of how the things I say can affect others. I will also have gained an insight into the world of a deaf or mute person.

So to reiterate: coughing, belching, sneezing, etc., does not count. I am in control of the limitation I placed on my world. Even if I do slip, there is no winning or losing, only an experience.

Things I miss the most – laughing, whistling, yelling, singing, talking to my father and uncle

01.04.2010 DAY IV
This was a day of challenges. I had a good amount of errands to run, followed by an afternoon of work with my client ( I am a recreational therapist for a developmentally disabled adult). This was one of the first days that I actually became annoyed with my silence. I had a lot of face to face financial interactions to perform and I was not excited to see how they would play out.

First on my list was to pay rent. I walked into the office expecting things to be difficult, however I was entirely surprised by how simple it turned out to be. I pointed to a post-it and he gave it to me. I wrote “rent for my address down,” and stuck it to the check. He said OK thank you, the end. Next on the list was to go to one of my banks to take out money to pay another bank. At the first bank I simply used the ATM, phew. I have a loan with the second bank and I had to somehow convey that I wanted to make a payment on my account. I have several accounts there, but only one with a loan and for some reason it’s always difficult for them to find the right account. I was not looking forward to this, but I was once again astonished by how simple it was. I wrote $200 dollars towards my loan followed by my name and my social security number on my parking validation. I handed it to her, and she handed it back stamped along with a transaction receipt; wow!

Next on the list was work with my client, and on schedule for today was to finish his latest painting. His fiftieth birthday is this coming Friday so he and I have been working on another rendition of the Eiffel-Tower as a gift for his twin sister. Matt has experienced my silence last year. This year I kept him very informed that it was coming again, so he was not in the dark. We had a great day of painting followed by a short walk and some hot tea downtown New Haven.

In the evening I went to C.O Jones for free food during happy hour with some friends. Other than the fact that I was not taking it was a typical night out. I went to sleep rather early that night; I have been feeling more tired than usual lately. I have also found myself napping on occasion, and I that is a very rare event in my life. I am not sure if all this is because I have fewer interactions with the world, or because there is less light in the winter months, further analysis is due here.

01.05.2010 DAY V
Today was a fairly simple day, I didn’t even leave the house. I awoke feeling quite ill and I believe this is the most likely reason I have felt so tired lately. I ate breakfast, watched some downloaded television shows, and then took a shower. Not feeling any better, I started myself on a treatment of Echinacea Root.

I used the afternoon time to edit some of my photographs from London, England, I really want to put these photos on my website before February. While I was editing them, my roommate explained to a mutual friend of ours that I was not talking for the first seven days of the New Year. She reacted just as many people initially do, a look of puzzlement, a loss of words, then immediately followed by a few questions that I respond to with head nods. She said something along the lines of, that seems cool or interesting. Galen (my roommate) made a rebuttal, “yeah, try living with him.” He also said the same thing last year.

I tried to learn something from what he had said by generalizing my situation. By becoming silent I removed a part of myself from the world, without conscious intention. When verbal, I am usually quite comical and easy to converse with. While silent both of those means of communication become very difficult, although not impossible. In a broad view of my situation, I had removed the part of myself that allowed us to interact, relate, and communicate. I see this same unintentional behavior in people suffering from depression or substance addiction.

Someone suffering from addiction can become completely encompassed by their world of substances. As most of an addicts energy can easily become focused around obtaining and using their drug of choice. They often don’t leave much of themselves available to their loved ones. This is a commonality with those that suffer from depression. Their worlds have become altered and their ideals have changed. Though unlike depression, the initial stages of the disease called addiction, comes by choice. When people make the decision to dance down the path of addiction, they are slowly removing parts of themselves and adding new ones. Think of your personality as a jar of water. My take on it is that we can only have so much water in the jar; we can only be so much of a person. Granted we change and our personalities and evolve as we grow and mature, we often leave pieces of ourselves behind as we add new ones. An addict’s jar can become completely filled with the single desire to get high. While someone suffering from depression seem to have spilt all the water out of their jars, as they often feel lost, and have no desires. Connecting the dots, I have detached a part of myself that everyone I know related to, similarly to that of an addict. My personality was no longer as outspoken as it usually was.

I have used my silence to catch a glimpse of the world around an addict through sober eyes. With this understanding, I am able to relate to how families or friends must feel when they watch a loved one slowly change into a person that they cannot relate to anymore, or even communicate with. Sometimes we make decisions in our lives without even realizing how they affect those around us. I was able to see this more clearly while silent. I recognize that I have way over exaggerated my circumstance here, but I think my point of reference was not too far off.

01.06.2010 DAY VI
I woke up this morning and decided that I was going to make a phone call. My father and I usually spoke on a daily basis. I really missed his hearing his voice as I was sure he felt the same about mine. I dialed the number, placed the phone on speaker and eagerly awaited his answer. As my father said hello, so did I. To be more accurate, my computer speakers said hello. I was using windows type to speech. He did a lot of the talking, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. We caught each other up the best we could with the limitations of my computer voice, and shared a few laughs. Mine were silent; the computer could not process “hahaha” as laughter. He told me that I sounded like Steven Hawlking, so I immediately started to type in strange and inaccurate astronomy and physics facts, and it did sound just like him. I told him that I will be speaking this Thursday at midnight, and the phone call ended shortly after that.

I felt as though I was able to sympathize with Steven Hawking after making that phone call. I had so much that I wanted to say, so many thoughts to convey, yet I was no where near as limited as he is. I can’t imagine how he must feel or how frustrated he is, but I now have a minor understanding. I would’ve never of been able to remotely comprehend the level of irritation he must feel with all his limitations if I had never silenced myself. I am learning so much, feeling so much, and experiencing emotions I have never felt before, and yet I am more removed from the world then I have ever been.

This afternoon was another day with my client Matt. Today we went bowling and to the movie theaters, I love my job! I had quite an experience the last time I was silent at this bowling alley, I was very excited to see what was going to happen this time around. We walked in, walked up to the desk, and this time around I met Matt take care of business. The only time I intervened was to hold up two fingers representing the amount of games we wanted to play. The last time around I tried to control the situation which led to confusion, this time I let things take care of themselves which turned out to be a much easier way of conducting business silently. Last time Matt and I had a different clerk who gives me trouble even when I can speak. He always tries to charge my client full price when he has been getting a discounted rate there for many years.

Matt is an amazing bowler, he bowled for the Special Olympics for many years and I have witnessed him bowl over 200! When Matt bowls I usually provide a lot of support Silent support was an obstacle I now had to learn how to overcome. I began clapping, even if he was not knocking all the pins down. I smiled whenever possible, stood closer then usual, touched his shoulder from time to time, and provided as many high-fives as possible.

Later that evening my friends and I had another game night. About ten of us gathered at my friend’s apartment, and cranium was the first game up. A few people were reluctant to have me on their team, referring to me as a weakness. I had brought my dry-erase board, and with it I became my teams designated artist. The first opportunity our team had to play was an eyes closed drawing problem, with in the first 10 seconds my team had guessed what I was drawing. I was slowly realizing that speaking was not even required to accomplish many of these challenges as lots of them did not allow you to talk anyways. Long story short, the team with the silent link in the chain ended up winning. Having adjusted to having to interact with the world through symbols, makeshift sign language, and being able to write words with hast made me everything but a inconvenience, it made a an advantage. I have become more efficient at speaking with out speaking, life in a nonverbal world.

Further into the evening, my ability to empathize with those who are communicably impaired expanded greatly. Inside of me is a vocabulary that I am unable articulate with written word. I am a terrible speller and my dyslexia was beginning to prevail. One of my most common dyslexic mistakes is reversing the lowercase b and d, and that I did. Present were a few people that never even met me before, they have never heard me speak. I felt inadequately represented by my communication restriction, and there was nothing that I could do about it. The feeling inside of me was a form of irritation that I had never experienced before. I was upset, I was angry, and there was nothing that I could do to express it or explain myself.

In my line of work I have assisted many individuals that were completely aware of the world around them, but due to a debilitating disease were not able to communicate or interact. They have thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideas that they can not voice. Granted my limitations were self inflicted and not at all debilitating, I had a glimpse into the world of someone who is. Imagine how it must feel to be completely conscious and not be able to speak or even have basic mussel control. Now imagine you are being pushed in a wheelchair through a mall, and have to look at people view you as a monstrosity. As your arms twitch and saliva glands salivate out of control, you are having clear thoughts but can not express them. I am of course over exaggerating, but to make a point. I was falling victim to this on a much smaller level. My silence has once again allowed my to walk the shoes of someone that is close impossible to identify with.

01.07.2010 DAY VII
Anticipation is in the air, I am very excited to hear my own voice and re-experience laughter. At the strike of midnight tonight, January seventh, I am going to speak my first words of 2010. I will be out with my friends, a Thursday night tradition.

Throughout the day I spent a lot of time thinking. I was soon going to be able to talk and yet a part of me did not want to. Yes it would make things easier, but is that something I even want? This modern western civilization is seems programmed to innovate an easier way of existence. Its aim is a hassle free life, but where is the fun in that? Some of the best times of my life were spent going under, over, or around obstacles. Does skimming the synopsis of a movie suffice, or do we yearn for the intimate details of the story? I cherish the little things in life: slipping on ice and catching my balance, the rush of accelerating through a yellow light, or getting lost and having to find my own way home. These challenges, or inconveniences society would rather define them, allow us the opportunity to see who we really are, to measure ourselves at least once. It’s important in life to not necessarily be strong, but to feel strong.

Modern civilization and technology is slowly removing all the challenges we face in life, its hard to experience anything original or even real anymore; another reason for my silence. Also it’s said that technology is supposed to bring us closer together but I feel that it just alienates us. I can send an instant message to china, order a pizza, and comment on my friend’s Facebook page with minimal key strokes, but yet I have no idea who my neighbors are. I feel more connected to the world by removing my ability to communicate with it vocally. It makes my interactions more meaningful. While silent and communicating with someone, it often became a very intimate experience. Words were chosen very carefully from both parties, and conversation slowed down, a refreshing break from hasty meaningless chatter.

At 12:03 am Friday the 8th I spoke my first words of 2010. My silence was broken by the recital of a quotation from Leonardo Da Vinci, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” I idolize Leonardo Da Vinci. I can identify with him and his endless intellectual inclinations. I share many of his scientific interests, personality traits, and admire his attitude towards life. He is deemed by many to be the greatest and most intelligent person to have ever walked the Earth. Unfortunately he is only widely famous for his paintings. Discovered and published to late, his journals reveal that his mind predated by hundreds of years those of the Wright Brothers, Galileo, Igor Sikorsky, Alfred Wegener, and the list goes on. An amazing observation made by him was that our eyes see by letting light inside. Science at the time dictated our eyes projected the visual world in front of us.

Once I began talking it as if an imaginary shield was lifted. The silence made me feel separated from the immediate world around me. I felt unplugged or like a fly on the wall, but once I became vocal I was reintegrated into the world. I was able to say what was on my mind, share in laughter, and just felt closer to those around me.

Overall Observations
People generally assumed that I was deaf, dumb, or mute. Even though I established again and again my ability to hear, I was astounded at how many people would try reply  with written words. A lot of my friends reported that because I was silent, they felt like they could not talk to me. I was contagious, the host of the virus of silence. It became clear to me that as silent as I could possibly be I was louder than ever before.

I noticed a dampened subjectivity to vocalizing when startled. Usually when I stub my toe or hear a loud clang, I vocalized. I found it peculiar that I was even able to control my reflexes at the autonomic level. Once I allowed myself to speak, it was like a switch was flipped. I was immediately letting out sighs, cries, and ouches. It’s nice to know that if need be I have the ability to control my reactions. I can choose to be silent. Exercising my choice, I grew.

I did feel a strange sense of being alone while silent, even in the presence of my friends. I could be standing among companions, listening and even participating silently  in conversation, nonetheless I felt by myself. When people communicate with their  friends and family they generally speak their minds. It’s almost an instantaneous event, thought and word. However in my case, there were always delays, and moments were constantly slipping by. I was not able to be my outward self, and it was not only apparent to me. After a while I just gave up on trying to add to conversations unless I felt it absolutely necessary, and inconsequence I felt alone. However, I never felt more in control or free in my life.

I was a prisoner in my own mind. As time passed, my mind flooded with thoughts. I was thinking faster, deeper, and more clearly than ever before, but keeping everything inside. Thoughts grow, mature, and develop over time like seeds. Silence was the fertilizer to my field of thoughts. My ideas were incubated, cultivating more diverse and developed concepts and theories. Trapped inside my own mind I was forever observing, processing, and thinking about the world around myself.

Silence taught me that many take language for granted. We live in a world that is very difficult and even shunning for those who are silent. Silence opened my eyes to see that language, written or spoken, is our most valuable tool. speaking allows us to live and learn from experiences that are not our own. It allows us visit the past with the objective of reducing  mistakes in the future. Without it, everything would have to be learned hands on or by personal demonstration.

It also taught me that a lot of our language is communicated unconsciously. Our bodies speak without us knowing it most of the time; this is how I often communicated. Hand gestures and eye movements, our bodies can be louder than our words. Silence placed me more in tune with my body and even more aware of the body language of those around me.

I now understand that it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it. Human beings since the beginning of time have significantly relied upon symbols, and we do still today. This being said, a single word with symbolic implication can say more than a key note speaker. For instance a swastika: behind this word are powerful feelings, violent experiences, war, death, and possibly more books than a single library can house. Granted it may not mean the same thing to all of those around the world, its original meaning of peace dates back to the Neolithic period. Stolen by the Germans and used to associate with the actions of the Nazi regime, its meaning has changed to the eyes of the western world; even outlawed in Germany. What I am getting at here is we can say more by speaking less. People often over explain things, at times drowning their points. I learned to choose my words more carefully. It’s possible that one word, in the right context and at the right time, can express more than all the words in the world.