I took a vow of silence this week.
It’s not the first time. I’ve done it before as a spiritual exercise, usually in a beautiful mountain retreat setting or an urban convent. This time was different. It wasn’t spiritual. It wasn’t in a retreat setting. And it wasn’t intentional.
I took a vow of no vocal chords. Because I had no choice. My voice just decided to up and leave me. The nurse diagnosed laryngitis, gave me some helpful leaflets and nasal spray, and told me not to talk.
One night I went to a party. Not the best place to be when you can’t talk, but I took a little whiteboard and pen with me.
Oh look, she’s got something to say, people laughed when I started writing and the conversation halted until I’d finished scribbling. We could laugh; we all knew it was temporary. At least I hoped so. It’s hard to be a teacher when you haven’t got a voice.
If it was permanent no one would have dared to laugh.
When you’re voiceless, you begin to see the fine line between inclusion and exclusion. You notice stuff when you’re not busy filling the air with noise.
You notice the people to whom no one is talking. One man came into the room and sat down. No one greeted him or spoke to him. I wanted to say hello, make small talk, include him. But I didn’t really know him. And didn’t want to creep him out by shoving my whiteboard in front of his face. So, I sat in silence and watched the world go on around us. He soon left the room.
When you’re voiceless, you learn to sympathise with others who have no voice.
I rode the bus with the middle one into town. She had to ask the driver for a ticket for me. It’s like being one of those kids who have to speak for their parents who don’t know any English, she said. It was an uncomfortable shift of power that left both of us tired.
When you’re voiceless, it forces others to speak up for you.
But what happens if no one speaks up? If no one notices us sitting quietly on our own? If no one notices us struggling to survive?
I couldn’t say Cheers Drive as I got off the bus, so I simply gave a thumbs up sign as my offering of thanks. I wondered if the driver thought I was rude. How many times do I perceive others as impolite or disrespectful when they simply have no voice?
At the party, a young boy watched curiously from a distance. After a few minutes of observing me writing on the board to others in the group, he sidled up to me and gestured to the pen. I handed it over.
Hi, he wrote.
Hey, I wrote back. How’s school?
We continued our little conversation back and forth in silence, the only sound the scratching of the pen on the board. The middle one was nosy, and joined us. Can she hear, he asked her as if I wasn’t present. Yeah, she just lost her voice, the middle one told him. She’s not deaf.
He sighed with relief, but choose to sit with me in the silence, and continued to ‘talk’ to me via the whiteboard.
When you’re voiceless, most people choose not to engage.
It takes too much effort to talk with someone who can’t answer you at a rate faster than a tortoise. Who can’t respond unless you’re in the same room. Some people try to rush ahead of my pen and guess what I’m writing. Waiting to see what’s written takes too much effort. Sometimes it’s easier not to talk at all.
So, if you’ve got a voice, use it. Stand up for those who are voiceless. Use your eyes to listen. See the fine line between inclusion and exclusion.
Before it happens to you. And you find yourself on the opposite side of the line. The powerless one. Praying that it’s only temporary.