The Gift of Silence (or what 48 hours at a sign language weekend taught me about rest)

Hello all! Today I have a more meandering blog post for today, on a topic that I think is going to be really interesting to explore. Recently (meaning about six weeks ago, depending on when you end up reading this post) I spent a weekend at an AOW. For the uninitiated, AOW stands for Auslan Only Weekend. Essentially, it’s a weekend for students and Deaf people alike to come together and communicate only in Auslan (ie, the sign language that is the first and/or preferred language for culturally Deaf people)*

Despite the obvious terror of going somewhere I wouldn’t be allowed to speak my first language (English), and was expected to communicate in a completely new language that I’d only been learning for five months, I loved it. Was it hard? By golly gosh, yes it was. But was every single minute of it a wonderful learning opportunity? Yes, it definitely was. I loved that weekend with all my heart and I was almost in tears when I left.

And after I got home, it got me thinking about my experience at that weekend away. I came back tired, but refreshed. Which was a novel experience, because I almost always return home mentally and physically exhausted from being away. I have a chronic illness, and continual fatigue and pain is part of that particular parcel, and I often experience flare ups after being out of the house for a whole weekend. The mental, emotional and physical stress of these outings if often too much for me. So why did I come back from this one feeling “good” tired, and mentally refreshed?

Surprisingly enough, I was actually able to identify why, and those musings are what I will be sharing with you today. So, let’s get into it.

* As a note, I will be using the terminology preferred by the Deaf Community whenever applicable in this post. Deaf (with a capital D) refers to people who identify as culturally Deaf and use sign language as their first or preferred language. deaf (with a lowercase d) refers to people with the medical condition of deafness (in other words, people who can’t hear) but do not identify as culturally Deaf (as a reference, my grandpa is deaf, but not Deaf). Hard of hearing encompasses a wide range of people with a spectrum of hearing/deafness and they may or may not identify as Deaf.

The Gift of Silence

One of the stories I wrote when I was seventeen was about a Deaf boy. That story opened with the lines “silence is a powerful prison”. But if I rewrote that story now, I would change that opening line just slightly, tweaking it into what I now believe.

“Silence can be a powerful prison”. Because it doesn’t have to be, silence can also be an incredible gift.

The Auslan Only Weekend wasn’t completely silent, obviously. Yes, it was completely devoid of spoken language, physical words emptying from people’s mouths into the air, but it wasn’t devoid of sound. We students laughed a lot. And Deaf people also laugh a lot–and very loudly too. As a society, we tend to disparage loud laughter, but the Deaf Community doesn’t. Loud laughter is simply indicative of what a great time everyone is having.

A View from the look out at Stanwell Tops

There was also environmental sounds. The sounds of urns heating up morning tea. The sounds of the caterers serving us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The conference centre was located in a piece of beautiful bushland outside of the major Australian city of Wollongong, and the sounds of birds, animals and the wind blowing through the gum trees were prevalent. There were also attendees of other conferences, and the sounds of children screaming, laughing and playing could be heard at regular intervals.

So no, the AOW wasn’t completely silent, at least, not for me and the other students. All it lacked was spoken words.

On the second day of our stay, we had a three hour break between activities. Some people went out to cafes, or to the beach, or hung around and chatted (in Auslan) to other students. Being the introvert that I am, I abandoned my classmate (the only one who’d made the trip with me) and went outside with my phone, knitting, and a copy of The Hunger Games.

At first, I planned to lie on the grass and listen to music while reading my book. And then it occurred to me that listening to music might be cheating. So I decided not to. And what did I do instead? I read my book. Then I put my book down for a bit, knitted part of my beanie, checked Instagram and sent a (Auslan) message to my friends. Then I picked up my book again and read another fifty pages.

All normal things, right? So why did it feel so refreshing?

Later on, when I contemplated this, I decided it was because of the silence. I read my book in silence. I knitted in silence. I checked Instagram with the sound off. I sent a message to my friends without speaking. All the while, the only thing I heard was the wind, a few birds, and the kids playing soccer in the field over from where I was sitting.

And it was an amazing feeling.

Our culture does not value silence. We pity those who can’t hear and do our best to “fix” them, by forcing hearing aids and cochlear implants into their lives. And for those of us who can hear, we force music, talkshows, instructions, YouTube, podcasts, audiobooks, and a hundred other things into our ears. Even our churches don’t appreciate silence. We cram reflection times with instrumental music and worship songs, or even someone praying aloud. Silence is not allowed, even in sacred moments between ourselves and our Creators.

And I can understand why. I’m a dog trainer, and I often say that I have a Malinois brain. For those who may be less familiar with dog breeds, malinois dogs are famous for being incredibly high maintenance dogs who absolutely need a job to do. They’re the quintessential army dog, IED detection dog, drug sniffer dog, high-powered sport dog. They’re brains (and bodies) are go, go, go. My brain is like that too. I always need stimulation, always need something to think about and my body to do. Which is why I’ll listen to podcasts and write blog posts. Or listen to music and read a book. Or listen to audiobooks and clean the house. I always want two things to think about.

But it turns out that this sort of lifestyle isn’t really that good for you. In an article about busyness, Very Well Mind mentions several of the reasons why people may crave being busy constantly. Self-worth linked to busyness/productivity, and the amazing numbing power of being constantly on the go are two of the mentioned reasons. In essence, we feel like we’re seen as “less-than” if we’re not constantly stressed and overworked. Or we allow busyness to swallow us up, to keep us from the facing the reality of our lives. In either situation, busyness becomes a coping mechanism, and not a healthy one.

While I was at the AOW I experienced a little taste of what a slower, quieter life might be like. Because I was using another language entirely, I was more thoughtful about the things I said, I thought them through more. I spent more time engaging with other people, which is difficult for a shy and introverted person like me. I wasn’t stressed out by the sound of two hundred people all talking at once (again, another major symptom of my chronic illness is hypersensitivity, particularly to sound). Auditory processing is another thing I struggle with, and the relative lack of things that needed auditory processing was absolute paradise.

And most importantly, I only did one thing at a time.

It’s a common joke among us students that we experienced the hardship of being Deaf for one weekend–and no, it wasn’t the language barriers we experienced when we went to a club for dinner, or when we interacted with the conference caterers. The true hardship was eating cold food. You may laugh, but it’s true. Obviously, it’s difficult to sign and eat at the same time, and Deaf people are notoriously chatty, so my bacon and eggs was cold every single morning, and my chicken schnitzels were cold every single night.

But jokes aside, when deprived of the ability to speak, I began to value the “one thing at a time” approach. I couldn’t eat and carry on a conversation at the same time. I couldn’t read and carry on a conversation. I couldn’t write and carry on a conversation. I especially couldn’t drive and carry on a conversation.

On my drive home, I stopped at a McDonalds for a toilet break and a snack, and upon walking into the restaurant, I was immediately hit by how noisy it was. People talking everywhere. I ordered my food and retreated to my car to eat in silence. When I got home, I was immediately assaulted by my four siblings, all desperate to make their opinions known, my mum reminding everyone to help out with the cleaning, the movie playing in the background and all three of my dogs barking their heads off for dinner (if any dog trainer tells you their dogs are well trained, they’re lying).

Welcome back to sensory overload, my friend.

Almost immediately I found myself slipping back into my old “productive” habits. Listen to an audiobook while walking the dog, that podcast looks interesting put it on while I write. Put on a movie and smash out a blog post. Listen to an audiobook to help me fall asleep.

But I didn’t enjoy it like I used to, and since coming back from the AOW I’ve tried much harder to work on one thing at a time. If I feel the need to listen to music while I write, I put on one of those super specific aesthetic playlists on YouTube*. If I want to listen to a podcast, I’ll listen to a podcast. If I want to watch a movie, sit your darn butt down and actually watch it.

*(you’re a young academic whose best friend has just betrayed you and you’re sitting in a library while rains falls and a fire crackles–Dark Academia playlist)

Obviously, I’m not completely changed. I still listen to books to help me sleep most nights. I still put music on when I’m cleaning. But I try to give myself periods of silence to relax and recharge. I walk the dogs and allow myself to think and muse and commune with God. I want churches to bring in times of reflective silence. And no, worship songs do not count as silence.

I want us to cherish the gift of silence, and in doing so, embrace the slower, more reflective life. I don’t want us to numb our sad hearts with busyness, or strive to gain our self worth from what we manage to get done in a day. I want us to embrace our thoughts, not drown them out with Irish folk metal rock (yes, strangely specific). I want us to communicate with God, and allow him to speak to us. I want us to appreciate the sounds around us, particularly the sounds of nature.

Our culture looks down on tradition, particularly the younger members of the church. We want to make church look inviting, so we scornfully brush away any clinging remnants of the “old” church. But in doing so, we often lose sight of beautiful things that were created to help us in our physical and mental health, and in our walk with God. It used to be common among for Christians to take temporary vows of silence for certain reasons, or at certain times in the liturgical calendar, this was common among both the Holy Orders and lay Christians. I’ve no doubt there’s Christians around today who still do this, but they are no longer “cool Christians”. They’re on the very fringes of both mainstream and Christian culture. But they understood the power of silence in communing with both God and their fellow humans.

Jesus too, valued silence. How many times does the Bible mention him going off “to a quiet place” to pray? Away from the noises of the crowd and his constantly-bickering disciples, just to be with God, alone and in silence, apart from the noises of the birds, and the sea?

You don’t have to take a vow of silence, but today I do encourage you to spend a few moments in the quietest place you can find. Just sit and appreciate the silence, or bring a task with you and concentrate solely on that. Allow yourself to rest and recharge, embrace the lack of busyness. If you’re a Christian, or a follower of another religion, allow yourself time to worship without music, or spoken words. Allow yourself time to be a human.

Appreciate the gift of silence, don’t make it your enemy.

Hey friends! How are you doing? Are you taking enough time to rest and recover? The pandemic fatigue is real, especially right now in Australia, so make sure you take time to look after yourself. And now tell me, have you ever taken a vow of silence? Maybe for Lent, or for some charity cause? Or have you ever been to a “voice off” Deaf event? Tell me your thoughts!

8 thoughts on “The Gift of Silence (or what 48 hours at a sign language weekend taught me about rest)

  1. This was very thought-provoking, Chelsea. I’ve never taken a vow of silence, but I’ve just come off of a week in the mountains, and just sitting and listening to the silence is one of the most refreshing things I’ve done this year. I so appreciated what you wrote about silence aiding contemplation and reflection – so necessary as we seek to walk with our God.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this is definitely not helping me resist the urge I keep having to learn ASL 😛 Thank you for sharing your experience and reflections–it sounds like it was an amazing experience. I also can struggle with auditory/sensory processing, so I could relate to you in at least that way, and now I feel challenged to include more silence in my own life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! What a neat opportunity – I really enjoyed reading about the weekend and the takeaways you had. This has definitely convicted me to focus more on silence and stillness, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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