Vow of Silence

The day I was born (according to my mother) one of the doctors listened to my loud cries and quipped, “That kid’s ALL mouth!” And somehow that characterization has followed me ever since.

I have an old cassette tape recording of myself in the 3rd grade, talking to the tape recorder. It was a pretty one-sided conversation, but apparently that didn’t bother me too much, as I talked non-stop for 60 minutes on one side, paused to flip the tape, and carried on for another 60 minutes.

Sometimes when my wife asks me about something for which I have a strong opinion (which could be anything from theology to parenting to what color the frying pan *really* is) I get on a soapbox and notice about half an hour later that her eyes have glazed over and her responses have degenerated into “uh huh…yeah…uh huh.”

One might say that I’m prone to diarrhea of the mouth.

Lately, as I’ve been meeting new people here at seminary, and finding plenty of things to opine about, I think it may have gotten worse. Worst of all, I notice sometimes that I’m more interested in what I want to tell people about myself than what I might learn about them. Like, by being quiet and listening? I suspect that if I continue this pattern unchecked, it might make for a lonely four years. Then again, it might also make for some intense competition between me and my son, “getting a word in edgewise,” as he seems poised to follow in my footsteps (which is also a scary thing).

Another thing that’s thrown this habit of mine into the light is some reading I’ve been doing lately on Cistercian Trappist monasticism. While it is certainly a misconception that trappist monks take a “vow of silence” along with their vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, they do place a high value on limiting one’s speech to bare essentials in certain situations, and at certain times of the day. As best as I can understand it, this is an attempt to both cultivate an atmosphere of contemplation, and to practice self-discipline in communication. I imagine it also forces them to be better listeners and reflective thinkers.

It’s a practice I’d like to emulate, at least try to for the next month. Those of you who know me well can stop laughing now… Perhaps if I’m successful it could even turn into a new habit (monastic pun partially intended). However, since I can’t (in the interest of being a good parent, spouse, and student) completely abstain from speech, I’m thinking I’ll mainly stick to limiting or eliminating the following things from my speech:

  1. Unsolicited opinions
  2. Unsolicited information about myself
  3. Unsolicited knowledge (or comments, or questions) for the sole purpose of showing off how smart I am
  4. Idle conversation for the sole purpose of filling awkward silences
  5. Soliloquies (i.e. any uninterrupted speeches over one minute long)
  6. Any words (solicited or not) that might be construed as arrogant, mean-spirited, or critical for the sake of being critical. (I’m not sure how or if this applies to Bill Gates, 1980’s Praise Music, Starbucks, and ASCAP, but they’re probably already safe in light of numbers 1 & 5 above).

I realize I’m setting my sights pretty high here, especially in light of that last one. I will probably fail at some point, most likely tomorrow (or tonight). But it still seems like something worth attempting, and if I’m able to become a more thoughtful person, a better listener, or even just slightly less annoying — then I’ll consider it worthwhile, and worth continuing even when I fail.

And for any smart-ass friends of mine who are about to comment that I’ve already broken all six of my rules in this blog post alone, I’m claiming a general exemption for blog posts. This blog is my sanctuary for long introspective reflection, my outlet for off-the-reservation exploration, and occasional venting. As it is, I only have time to blog once a week on average in the midst of Greekyness. On the other hand, I probably *will* try to apply my rules to comments I make on my own blog and those of others, and to emails and facebook/social network/online conversations.

Of course, that brings me to Twitter (and identi.ca, and ping.fm, and…). Number 4 isn’t a problem, obviously, but I’m kind of wondering if the whole philosophy of twitter goes against numbers 1, 2, 3, and often 5. But then again (let’s try this new listening thing out), what do *you* think?

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9 Responses to Vow of Silence

  1. Will Humes says:

    This reminds me of the Three Gates of Speech common in Buddhist teaching. Before speaking one asks him or herself three questions:

    Is it true?
    Is it kind?
    Is it necessary?

    Only if one can answer yes to all three questions does one speak. While I would like to live in this manner myself, I find it all but impossible to do so. If you’d like to read an article on this idea, check out this web page:


  2. Will Humes says:

    Btw, thanks for this post, it has given me something to ponder for the next few days and possible blog post as well. After all, what the use of all that pondering if one can’t spout off what one ponders in a blog, even if it is pondering about silence : )

  3. Trait says:

    Neal, knowing you, this is a noble endeavor, indeed. However, to your friends, your opinions (while not always mutually agreed with) are welcome and provide ample fodder for a good conversation. I’ll be interested to read the resutls of your experiment in this blog.

  4. Dannah says:

    I guess it would be inappropriate to this post if I give my unsolicited opinion?? Hee. But It’s ok to use big words. Language should be used and you don’t want to fall into the trap of censorship 😉 And no one knows if you’re talking to yourself as long as no one’s around. Good luck Neal. This isn’t going to be easy for you!!! But I think you can do it.

  5. Neal Locke says:

    Ahh, Trait — you’re an awesome friend, and I’ve been missing that here. Wanna leave behind your cool new high-paying job and comfy new house and join me at Seminary for the next few years?

  6. Mark says:

    I started a blog a year ago just so that I could practice paring down my words, at least in writing. So far I haven’t posted anything. Sad, huh?

    This is a hard but necessary discipline for us verbosites! I’ll pray for you, if you pray for me. In keeping with your 5 guidelines, we could just mention each other’s names because God can probably figure out the rest. Deal?

  7. Please consider this comment a solicitation for any opinions you might have on any subject during our visit this week.

  8. Pingback: Mr. Locke’s Classroom » A Public Apology

  9. Pingback: To Speak or Not to Speak | One Thing I Know

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