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What We Learn When Find Silence


How long could you go without speaking? Guy Raz, the host of NPR's TED Radio Hour, has this story about one man who asked himself that question and what he learned from keeping quiet.


GUY RAZ, BYLINE: About a month after John Francis stopped speaking, things finally got quiet.

JOHN FRANCIS: Even though I wasn't speaking, I was thinking about conversations and arguments that I had in the past and oh, maybe I should have said that, or next time I'm going to say this. It took about a month before the conversations stopped rattling.

RAZ: This was in 1973 and by that point John had already given up riding in gas-power vehicles. It was his own personal protest after witnessing an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. He was young, idealistic and committed to saving the environment so he walked everywhere, even though most of his friends and family didn't see the point.

FRANCIS: So I argued a lot with people about my walking and how one person might make a difference. I don't think I was convinced myself that one person could make a difference and what I was doing mostly was kind of defending myself.

RAZ: So you just decided to stop talking?

FRANCIS: Yeah, but just for one day (laughter) but if I had started and someone said John, if you stop speaking today, you're not going to speak for 17 years, I might not have gone on.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's been called a kook, a crackpot, a saint.

RAZ: In 1987, CBS did a profile on John and at that time he'd been walking across the country for nearly 14 years in silence.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Maybe I can understand not driving, maybe, but not talking?

RAZ: Along the way he earned a Ph.D., he wrote about the environment and he communicated by using his own form of sign language - hands, gestures, facial expressions.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Inside your head. It started to get quiet inside your head? He started listening.

FRANCIS: What happened for me was that I used to listen to someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening, and then I would start thinking about what I was going to say back to show them that they were wrong, or that I could say that better or, look how smart I am, you know? And so that was a great relief to me because I was just able to learn from so many people and you know, people have so much to teach one another if we listen to each other so I was very fortunate to discover that, I think.

RAZ: And by not speaking, John Francis became a listener, a great listener. And so 17 years after he took a vow of silence, John gathered his friends and family at a hotel in Washington, D.C. on Earth Day in 1990 and then he spoke.

FRANCIS: And I said, thank you for being here and I kind of looked behind me because I thought someone was standing behind me who had somehow said what I was thinking and then I realized, it was me.

SIMON: John Francis spoke to Guy Raz of the TED Radio Hour. More ideas about the power of quiet on that program this weekend.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.