Timothy Larsen: Look who’s not talking now

Man with mouth taped shut and hand around ear to listen

Bigstock/marcinmaslowski

A Wheaton professor vows to curb his impulse to speak too quickly and instead follow the example of some famous listeners.

I recently heard a radio interview with John Francis, aka “the planetwalker,” an environmentalist who observed a vow of silence for 17 years, during which he traveled the United States on foot, meeting ordinary people.

When asked what he had learned from refusing to speak, his answer was deceptively simple: he had learned that other people are willing to share the things that are most important to them with someone who listens.

I was quickly enamored with Francis, because it was clear that he had not been simply engaging in a stunt so he could write a book about it. Seventeen years (1973-90) is an awfully long time, after all. (It reminds me of the U.S. immigration officer who worried that my wife and I had a green-card marriage; I asked him whether he didn’t think three kids was overdoing it a bit.)

No, John Francis had embraced silence simply because of the kind of person it would allow him to become, and the gift that his listening presence would be to the people he met -- citizens shouldering, with all the dignity they could muster, their struggles, frustrations and aspirations.

The planetwalker makes me want to walk more and talk less. And optimistically, I wonder whether being from Chicago might give me a home-field advantage when it comes to the art of listening. Chicago is known as the City of Big Shoulders, but I think it deserves credit for its Big Ears as well.

When many Chicagoans are asked to think of a famous resident of their city, their hearts and minds gravitate to the beloved Studs Terkel, a true Chicagoan’s Chicagoan. What is delightful about this is that Terkel became a celebrity by listening, usually to ordinary people. His extraordinary oral histories are a gift, not only to us today, but to future generations.

Even his books reflected the value of letting others have their say, with such splendid titles as “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,” “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” and “P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening.”

Today, Oprah Winfrey is the most famous woman from Chicago. As with Terkel, part of Winfrey’s success arose from her willingness to give other people an opportunity to talk about their lives.

Then there is the great Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. Far from being forgotten once cancer deprived him of speech, he seemed to be cherished by Chicagoans all the more in this final, physically silenced phase of his life. Several years after he had lost his voice and just a few before his death, Ebert was a guest on Winfrey’s television show. She listened to a man who couldn’t speak.

Nevertheless, for most of my life, it has been all too easy for me to underrate and overlook silence. I teach at a college for a living, and I suppose my official job title of “professor” could be colloquially translated as “talker.” Mix a little indiscipline with innate vanity, and one could be tempted to take the show on the road: “the planettalker.”

Experts in pedagogy say that when professors put a question to a class, they tend to be spooked by the moment of silence that follows and so start talking again too quickly. Wise teachers, however, allow a period of silence to linger long enough to convince their students that they really do want them to speak.

Of course, students also can fall into the bad habit of talking too much. I give credit in my classes for participation, but as I have learned from experience, some students imagine that the more times they speak, the higher the marks they will receive in this category.

I now write into my syllabi that credit is given for “participating constructively” and go on to explain that hogging the conversation and not giving your peers a chance to join it is not a constructive approach. During his long silence, John Francis earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. degree. One suspects that he was a better student -- a more effective learner -- precisely because he was fully engaged in listening to what his professors and peers were saying.

We professors are generally no better when we are with one another. With 30 faculty members, my academic department is the largest one on campus. The culture of our college is that departments discuss numerous decisions as a committee of the whole, but that model is calibrated to the typical department of 10 or so people. It can be trying when 30 faculty members want to have their say on every item of business.

Christian professors such as myself tend to mock the simplistic thinking contained in the slogan “Jesus is the answer.” But does not my eagerness to speak reveal a pathetic presumption that I -- not the Son of God incarnate, but I, of all people -- have all the answers? I need to learn to listen in order to understand who I really am -- which always turns out to be a person less important than I thought.

Silence is not simply not doing something. It is a classic spiritual discipline in precisely the same way that fasting is: a means of allowing other things, besides my overindulged self, to grow. I need to listen to curb my tendency toward self-deception.

I have taken to doodling on my notepad during departmental meetings an admonition from Holy Scripture: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19 NIV). On the days when our business is particularly important, I write it in calligraphy.