Monday, August 28, 2017


I've recently returned home from a month long "business trip" around Australia. Under the auspices of Inspired EC, I spent four weeks traveling from state-to-state, from city-to-city, from town-to-town, speaking with audiences of teachers and parents. It's something I've done before and will do again: it's fun meeting people as passionate about play-based education as I am, sharing stories, and connecting over them. But realistically, that only consumed a small part of my time Down Under. Much of my time was spent in hotels alone, airports alone, train stations alone, and restaurants alone, often surrounded by people, but still alone. When I didn't have an event, I would sometimes go entire days without speaking more than a few dozen sentences, mostly of the functional variety, to order food or give an address to a taxi driver.

During my normal life, in contrast, I talk a lot, probably more than I ought to, chattering away with children and their parents, trying to be friendly, to express warmth, to be supportive, or to be communicative, conveying information, opinions, or asking questions. Whether I like it or not, and I usually like it, I'm one of the "leaders" at Woodland Park, someone to whom others turn to for instructions or guidance or precedent or whatever, and that role requires a lot of talking.

In contrast, I did a lot of not talking while in Australia. And I liked that too, my own silence, for the most part. The words still scrambled around my head they way they do, but without the obligation to string them together for public consumption, I was better able to just listen to them. I took many long, long walks in unfamiliar places, speaking little and listening a lot, not just to myself, but to the world that is full of useful and interesting information that I can perceive at my will, but that is not part of the give and take obligations of communication. In my day-to-day life there are always loved ones or colleagues or news stories or even advertisements commanding my attention, insisting on communication, but being on the road like this, far from home and alone, their claim on me was so distant as to leave me largely free for long swaths of time to pick and choose where my attention would fall. Even the advertisements made no claim on my attentions, selling me alien products, services, and destinations for which I was not the target audience. In fact, that stood at the core of my spells of silence: I was rarely the target audience of any but the most rudimentary, utilitarian communications, like "Check out time is 11 o'clock," something to which I need only respond, "Thank you."

In the beginning days of the trip, my silence felt like an absence. The sound track of my own voice, of give and take with loved one and colleagues and news stories and even advertisements, was gone, but I soon recognized that it had been replaced by my sensations and observations unburdened by the necessity, real or imagined, to communicate about them. I sat with a crowd of tourists, for instance, in the shadow of the renowned Sydney Opera House, nursing a beer, as the sun set, the harbor at my shoulder, alone. I did not enthuse about the beauty or opine about the building's use of negative space or even nod in agreement at the enthusiasm or opinion of someone else. I was merely there, in that spot, at that moment, silent. Indeed, I didn't even want to take a photo, knowing that my primary reason for doing so was to eventually show it to someone else: it felt like a shout in the midst of my silence.

We live in the age of communication, the more and faster the better. We're all connected and interconnected, always plugged into the conversation, our attentions less and less our own as we attempt to divide it infinitely to attend to all that chatter. But here's the thing: our attentions are not infinite. Indeed, our attention, even more so that time, is perhaps the most valuable resource we possess, limited, rare, the one thing we have to give, yet we too often expend it willy nilly, giving it away, bit by bit, talking, listening, talking, listening, then talking, talking some more. I don't always want to answer the phone when it rings. I don't even want to know it's ringing most of the time. It often frustrates people in my life, but I've only now, after my month of silence, come to realize that that is me, intuitively saving my attention for the things upon which I chose to turn it.

Of course, none of us will ever be fully in control of our own attention. Sirens will always make us turn our heads, but that just makes it even more of a precious personal resource.

I discovered this in my month of silence, another under-valued resource. In my silence I was freer than I've ever been to attend to only that which struck me as useful or interesting. Early on, I caught myself habitually converting my experiences into stories that I would tell my wife or a friend or write about here on the blog the way I normally do, but as the weeks passed I found myself content with not talking, with not turning my experiences into words, but rather just being there, silently with them.

From an essay entitled "The Value of Silence" by Marina Benjamin appearing in the latest issue of New Philosopher (online version not yet available):

As we grow, we progressively lose our aptitude for silence -- both for being silent and for tolerating it. It doesn't help that teachers and parents alike discourage it. Speak up, they say. Say something for yourself. Cat got your tongue? Don't snatch. Ask nicely. What's the magic word? We tell children to get their noses out of books, or tear themselves away from their screens. We ask them to narrate their day at school. We teach them to emote and opine and express themselves, volubly. Children seldom get to learn about those exquisite moments when inner and outer silence can come together and produce a feeling of perfect contentment or understanding -- an appreciation of one's sense of just being, that's tantamount to an existential epiphany. Children may not have words for this, but they can apprehend it nonetheless.

I often think of the girl I taught years ago who rarely spoke, who we suspected of having "selective mutism." We tried so hard, her parents and I, to "help" her stop not talking, celebrating her every utterance, teaching her our prejudice against silence. Today, she is a regular, chatty teenager who, like the rest of us, now needs to re-learn the importance of silence.

When people ask me about my trip to Australia, I tell them, as a courtesy, that I had a good time, and I did. I tell them of the things I saw and the people I talked to. I usually gloss over all that time, that silent time, spent in hotels, airports, train stations, and restaurants, alone. I don't tell them about that part of my journey, not because it wasn't important, but because I can't, because for brief moments, in my silence, I discovered for myself the sense of "just being," with my phone turned off, my attentions my own, not turning any of it into words.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: