An Experiment In Silence

As part of my time off between leaving one job and starting a new one, I decided I really needed to get some time away from my daily technology interactions.  I wanted to break the annoying habit I have of pulling my phone out of my pocket every 60 seconds to see if a new email has arrived, checking Hacker News, Techmeme or any of the other minute by minute distractions.

My itinerary was to take me to Winthrop, WA, where I had been told lay some amazing X-country skiing.  I discovered XC skiing last year in Whistler and fell in love.  I love the workout, of course, and the fact that you can really punish yourself if you want to while out on the trail.  Beyond that, it’s all new to me.  There’s little on snow I won’t go down on a snowboard.

I remember finding myself on top of a frozen 30 foot waterfall once, and proudly declaring to my friends, “my heath insurance card is in my inside pocket” before completely botching my first jump turn and falling the rest of the way.  Sadly, the daily cash flow of skiing/snowboarding is crazy high, and I am no longer getting the required endorphins to make it worth it.  I’m willing to go to new mountains for the change in scenery, but I’m at that point in my life where I no longer see double black diamonds, but instead I see loss of income potential.

The other thing I dig about XC skiing is that it doesn’t appear anyone else has figured out what a kick ass way to spend your time it is.  Not entirely true – there’s a sizeable population of older (dare I say “wiser”) folks out on the trails, however, for the most part, there is no one on the trails.  I could count the people I ran across in a 3 hour sessions with both my hands.  Lovely.  It’s not glitz and glamour.  It’s you, your skis, some hard work, and lovely scenery.  Perfect.

Unique to this trip, I was alone.  My lovely wife gave me a hall pass, which meant I was alone from Tues early AM to Friday PM.  No checking in, and no calls unless it was an emergency.  It was truly and unplug vacation.

Knowing that I was going to be turning the data plan off on my phone once I crossed over Stevens Pass, I thought I would try another interesting experiment.  What would happen if I simply didn’t talk for the entirety of the trip?  To anyone.  Not a word.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.  My internal dialog alone is enough to, as my mother put it, “drive a saint crazy.”  I wondered how my brain, and more importantly my psyche, would handle this.

I’ll save all of the sordid details and skip to the end for the reader.  I made it all the way through.  Well, right up until Officer Friendly gave me a speeding ticket somewhere along my route home for doing 65 in a 60.  My first ticket in 10 years?  Groan.  OK, here are some of my observations:

I was surprised how much my jaw hurt by the end of the first day.  I was actively suppressing the desire to speak, and forcing my jaw shut.  It’s possible that I was clinching it, but it ached by the time the sun went down.

I was surprised at how quickly people adapted to my situation.  At first, I felt it necessary to explain in long-hand written form that I had no voice to anyone who would be helping me or expect to communicate with me.  I bought a pad and pen at a grocery on the drive, and on the first day during lunch, dinner, and while getting the skis/trail pass, I had written out in paragraph form, anew each time, that I had no voice, sorry for being a pain, blah blah.  Most folks just shrugged and went about helping me with as little trouble as possible.  By the start of the second day, I abandoned that pretense, and would simply point at my throat and make a “nope” cutting hand gesture.  Again, everyone just adapted immediately, smiled and life went on.  I could point at food, and pay for things, so life wasn’t that hard.  Until I locked my keys in my car.  I wasn’t staying at the Sun Mountain Lodge, but to the receptionist behind the counter that day (Megan, I believe your name was), you unwittingly participated in my experiment.  I considered calling time out, as it seemed unfair to ask for help from someone under the false pretense of my not having a voice.  She called a couple of companies for me, and argued with one person when she thought their price was too high.  The issue resolved itself, and I will certainly stay there next time I am in Winthrop.  They won a customer.  However, it was what she did when I left that surprised me the most.  I was feeling pretty rotten that this person had to spend time with me on account of my being voiceless, so I wrote the following:

“Sometimes it can be hard to ask for help when you have no voice, but stupidity sometimes overwhelms self reliance.  Thank you for helping when you really didn’t need to.”

She asked if she could pull the page out of my pad and keep it.  I was floored.  Great people there at the Sun Mountain Lodge.

I was surprised how much slower time moved.  I wasn’t watching TV.  I allowed myself a movie (go Kindle Fire) on two of the nights, but other than that, I was reading books on my Kindle, sleeping, riding my bike on the trainer, eating or skiing.  That was it.  Time slowed way way way down.  It was fantastic.

I was surprised at how much my internal dialog dissipated.  My thoughts seemed to slow down and focus.  I felt more creative.  I felt like my train of thought was hitched to one track at a time, and that the track ran for more than just a few feet before wanting to jump to the next track.  I felt less caffeinated, despite having not changed my caffeine levels.

I was surprised at how much more purposeful I was in my interpersonal interactions.  During the entirety of my trip, I felt like I was a burden on others.  Whether my lack of voice was real or fabricated is irrelevant.  I think I would have still felt the same way.

It was a wonderful rebalancing trip, and an interesting experiment.  Winthrop is, to put it nicely, a blink and you miss it sort of town.  I am now interested in replicating this experiment during a a full Friday to Sunday stint in a city of measurable size, with sufficient daily activities as to require human interaction.  The handful of weeks off between jobs has been absolutely wonderful; a fantastic gift.

  • Someone

     I see loss of income potential.

    i think too many people live their lives as a loss of income potential.  That’s why they are so unhappy…chasing the $

  • Rebster

    What an interesting experiment and a lovely article.

  • Anonymous

    Seeing as how silence worked so well, have you tried meditation? Maybe start at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society….

  • It reminds me of an experience I once had in a foreign country where relatively few people spoke English. Life became simple and mysteriously refreshing.