“Oh Karon, now I can say the stupidest things and you can’t make your witty remarks,” quipped my classmate two days into my vow of silence.
Potential responses flashed in my mind:
“Even if I could, your moronic self wouldn’t get it.”
Or, “No, but how about I kick you in the head a few times until the dumbass leaks out of your brain?”
Alas, all I could do was sit at my desk and stare at my phone that’s been beeping with unanswered voice mails for the last two days. The noise just added to the stomachaches and headaches that were plaguing me — the result of not being able to express my frustrations over the last hours. But at that moment, all I could think of were those snappy comebacks.
I’ve always been a bigmouth. I’ve been known to gossip about who’s been sleeping with whom and who has posted scandalous photos of themselves online. The way I deliver the news — in a fine, sarcastic wit — has been mistaken for arrogance and general dillweed-ery. But when I phoned a colleague a week ago about the uselessness of a meeting without realizing that the person who organized it was standing just two metres away — that’s when I knew I needed to shut up for a while.
Buddhism describes having a silent and calm mind as a sign of enlightenment. Christians and Quakers pray in silence to get closer to God. Hindus believe that a mind free of busy thoughts is essential to maturity.
I decided to test that mantra. My rules were simple: as of midnight last Tuesday, I attempted to cease communicating verbally for seven days. Laughter was permitted, but grunts and sighs of expression were forbidden. A pen and notepad was used sparingly.
After waking up from an effortless seven hours of silence, I arrived at school Wednesday morning to good-natured jabs and deliberate calls to my phone. Calls not coming from my oh-so supportive friends were passed on to Amit, one of the paper’s news editors, who told the caller to e-mail me instead.
“No, he’s going to get back to you,” he insisted. “He’s just out of the office right now, he checks his e-mail all the time. It’s the best way to get a hold of him, I promise.”
By the end of the day, my inbox was full of voice mails from dejected friends wondering why I haven’t called them back, or why I would only communicate with them through impersonal e-mails. “Imagine how good your typing skills would be by the end of the week,” a friend said in an effort to cheer me up. “You’ll never have to look at the keyboard again.”
The silent treatment continued when I met my partner to work on a group assignment. We had to interview Trinity-Bellwood residents about their neighbourhood, so I wrote the questions and he acted as the mouthpiece.
The two of us stood in front of household after household; he was excessively chatty while I nodded in agreement and bowed to thank the interviewee for their time. It may have worked in our favour — homeowners seemed to think that I was an exchange student accompanied by my mentor.
“This guy…” he referred to me as for the rest of the day, shaking his head to the ground.
My family reacted with a combination of disgust and amusement when I came home that night, showing them a scribbled note detailing my plan. They uttered a Chinese phrase that’s roughly translated as “stupid pig.”
“Don’t you kids have anything better to do?” asked my aunt as she worked out a system of communicating by phone without text messaging (she considered it too easy). If I call her and don’t speak, I’ll be home in an hour. Unable to say good night, I gave her a hug as I went to bed.
Silent retreats are also popular with vacationers who shell out big bucks to shut it. For $175 per day, one can head up to the Nonpareil Organic Farm B&B near Belleville, Ont. to detox and escape from cellphones and meetings. Or, for as little as $35, one can flee to the Anishinable Spiritual near Sault Ste. Marie to enjoy solitude and spiritual quests.
For Allan Kardec, though, silence goes against human nature. The 19th-century Frenchman who founded Spiritism, a philosophical doctrine that opposes materialism and embraces spiritual interaction, wrote in The Spirit’s Book that vows of silence are an “absurdity”:
“The vow of silence, like the vow of isolation, deprives man of the social relations which alone can furnish him with the opportunities of doing good, and of fulfilling the law of progress.”
On the contrary, I’d like to believe that my two days of silence would actually benefit the world.
Thoughts of losing my voice haunted me that night, though I later learned that it was nothing to lose sleep over.
“[Speech is] a function that’s basic and it’s not something that’s unlearned. Once they start using their voice again, it may feel and sound strange but physically I don’t think anything bad would happen,” said Pascal van Lieshout, director of the speech language pathology department at the University of Toronto. “If you abuse them by shouting then you’ll cause damage by putting too much pressure on them but not speaking for a year, I would be very amazed if it causes anything.”
That’s good news if 85-year-old monk and yoga master Baba Hari Dass decides to speak after more than 50 years of silence.
Even more impressive, Cistercian monks have taken vows for more than 900 years. I was on my way to Dass’ record until I exploded into a fury of expletives the next night.
The novelty of the task wore off Thursday when I had a six-hour class; a computer course with instruction manuals containing Aztec symbols and programs with obligatory log in problems.
When the professor asked if I had any difficulties, I pointed to my throat, feigning an illness. She nodded in sympathy and asked me yes or no questions for the rest of the day.
After surviving class, I forgot that I had a meeting to spearhead. The inner voices turned into boulders of four letter words because no one was paying attention to me.
People got rowdy and nothing got done. I needed to leave school. I called my aunt and waited 10 seconds before hanging up. This is it. The world won. I e-mailed my editor to declare my defeat.
“I can feel a tidal wave of rage building inside you,” he wrote back, adding that it’ll be better for everyone if I spoke.
The e-mail concludes, “And generally, I miss the sound of your voice.”
Thursday, 11:59 p.m.
The final 10 seconds of the vow made the Y2K countdown seem like watching penicillin grow.
Friday, 12 a.m.
I told my aunt and uncle that I loved them as they went to bed. I then quietly marched up to my room, closed the door, took a deep breath, gently pressed my face against my pillow and screamed.
Now that’s what I call inner peace.