One day in 1973, tired of arguing with people about his beliefs and actions, John Francis stopped speaking. His silence lasted for 17 years.
Francis had already earned a reputation as a bit eccentric by the time he decided that talking didn’t serve his goals. Two years earlier, after the collision of two tankers in San Francisco Bay caused a massive oil spill, he had stopped using all forms of motorized transportation. Occasionally he biked or sailed, but mostly he traveled on foot as a form of environmental protest. He called himself the Planetwalker.
But what was the point, people would ask. What good was he doing? No longer willing to debate the merit of his actions, Francis took a vow of silence for a day, and then the next, and the next. He earned three college degrees and walked across the country, without speaking. Through it all, he says, he learned how to truly listen—which is why his story interests me.
“Please listen to me!” How many times have we each uttered those words? How often have our entreaties been ignored? A willingness to listen to each other is vital to building strong friendships, love relationships, and teamwork on the job. Yet as a rule we are lousy at it.
Leaf through any text on the art of selfless service and one of the first things we’ll find is an admonition to carefully listen to the people we hope to help. Find out what their ideas are. Work with them to put those ideas into action, instead of trying to impose our own solutions.
Do we do that? Generally, no—or at least, speaking for myself, not until my windup-doll of a brain has zipped through the obvious solutions and, realizing one-by-one that they won’t work, run completely down. Only then will I really pay attention to what others have to say.
Francis’ 17-year vow of silence showed him how damaging this can be. After he had started speaking again, he told an interviewer, “I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say, and then I would stop listening.”
I am often guilty of the same thing.
He continued, “I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say it better, or look how smart I am.”
Guilty, guilty, guilty. Oh my.
Swearing off speech, Francis said, turned out to be “a great relief to me, because I could learn so much from so many people. And people have so much to teach each other, if we just listen to each other. I was very fortunate to discover that.”
I count myself very fortunate to have heard this interview.
Occasionally someone will tell me I’m a good listener. I consider this to be the highest of praise—and I also know it’s only fleetingly true. At times I do manage to listen with focused attention. But if my companions knew how much my mind had wandered as they spoke to me, or how many times I’d remembered something else I needed to be doing just then, they’d take it back.
There’s a reason we speak of the art of selfless service, or Seva as it’s called in some cultures. It doesn’t come easily to most of us. We can reach a level of gracefulness, and graciousness, in our actions only when we really do forget ourselves and focus on others. When we can manage this, the results are particularly beautiful.
May I always remember that the first step to Seva (I love that word) is to close my mouth, quiet my mind, and truly listen.
You can learn more about John Francis and his writings, including his second book, The Ragged Edge of Silence, online.