Why Would Someone Choose Silence For 17 Years?

Nov 21, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 12:24 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Quiet

About John Francis' TED Talk

For almost three decades, John Francis has been a planetwalker, traveling the globe by foot and sail with a silent message of environmental respect. For 17 of those years he didn't speak a word.

About John Francis

One day in 1983, John Francis stepped out on a walk. For the next 22 years, he trekked and sailed around North and South America, carrying a message of respect for the Earth — for 17 of those years, without speaking. During his monumental, silent trek, he earned an MA in environmental studies and a Ph.D. in land resources.

Today his Planetwalk foundation consults on sustainable development and works with educational groups to teach kids about the environment.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Back to the story of John Francis. He's the guy that we heard from earlier in the show who took a 17-year vow of silence, which, by the way, even John admits is totally nuts.

JOHN FRANCIS: I do. I feel like even now I look back and say, what did you do? I mean, how did you do that?

RAZ: Yeah.

FRANCIS: I even ask myself.

RAZ: Here is the story as John told it from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FRANCIS: My journey began in 1971 when I witnessed two oil tankers collide beneath the Golden Gate and half a million gallons of oil spilled into the bay. It disturbed me so much that I decided that I was going to give up riding and driving in motorized vehicles. That's a big thing in California. And people would drive up next to me and say, John, what are you doing? And I'd say, well, I'm walking for the environment. And they said, no, you're walking to make us look bad, right? And so I argued with people about that. I argued and I argued. I called my parents up. I said, I've given up riding and driving in cars. My dad said, why didn't you do that when you were 16?

(LAUGHTER)

FRANCIS: I didn't know about the environment then there back in Philadelphia. And so I told my mother I'm happy though. I'm really happy. She said and if you were happy, son, you wouldn't have to say it. Mothers are like that.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANCIS: And so on my 27th birthday, I decided because I argued so much and I talk so much, you see, that I was going to stop speaking for just one day - one day to give it a rest. And so I did. I got up in the morning, and I didn't say a word.

RAZ: It sounds like you were at a place in life where - I don't know - a part of you was unhappy with the kind of person that you had become and that you were almost looking to figure out a way to transform that into something else.

FRANCIS: That's interesting. I think that the reason why I stopped speaking may have been to avoid arguments. But I think that as the journey went on there were just other things that piqued my interest about not speaking. And so in order to at least satisfy myself, I made the promise or the vow, I guess, that I would revisit that decision on my birthday. And that ended the questioning of when I was going to speak. I didn't have to ask myself every day, is - are you going to speak today? I just didn't do that. I just said I was going to not speak for one year, and then I'd see what would happen.

RAZ: So a year became two - then three. And soon, John had gone to college, earned a PhD, walked across the entire country, all without speaking. And when he met someone new...

FRANCIS: I would cross my heart, put a finger over my mouth like, you know, I'm promising to be silent. And then I would cup my hand around my ear and nod so that you could say that oh, I can hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Maybe I can understand not driving, maybe - but not talking?

RAZ: About 14 years into his silence - this is in 1987. CBS aired the story about John who, by that time, had walked all over the country and all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A long time ago you talked, right? You talked real well. You were a smooth talker.

RAZ: In this story, he communicated with his own form of sign language- gestures, facial expressions - and it's actually surprisingly easy to understand what he's trying to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Inside your head - it started to get quiet inside your head? You started listening.

RAZ: When you were out there on your own, was your mind clear? Was it full? Was it quiet? Was it loud? Like, what do you remember?

FRANCIS: Yeah, there were - there's a couple of things that when I'm walking - and I might be thinking of the road and where I'm going. But at some point, I realized that as I'm walking, I'm not thinking about the road and where I'm going. In fact, I catch myself not thinking. And then I'm thinking again, of course. But so there are long periods of times that I was just being on the planet and breathing. And I think maybe breathing has a lot to do with that.

RAZ: As the years went by, John did a lot of writing. He was named a goodwill ambassador to the U.N. And he became known as the planet walker, all without using his voice. And then one day, he was wandering through a prison town in Venezuela, and he was suddenly struck by a thought that, in some ways, he had become a prisoner, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FRANCIS: The prison that I was in was the fact that I did not drive or use motorized vehicles. Now, how could that be? Because when I started, it seemed very appropriate to me not to use motorized vehicles. But the thing that was different was every birthday I asked myself about silence, but I never asked myself about my decision to just use my feet. I didn't know who I would be if I changed. And I know that a lot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place where we've gotten to. But there's another place for us to go. And we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we've become and go to the place where who we are becoming. So I want to thank you for being here, and I want to end this in five seconds of silence. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: I mean, it is true, like, you think about silence and most of us don't experience that on a day-to-day basis - right? - because we go to our jobs and we live - whether we live in a city or not, like, we still interact with people. And there's sounds, and there's noise in our minds. But then sometimes you do experience it. Like you go to a church or a really quiet space, and you realize the power of quiet.

FRANCIS: It is pervasive. I mean, it's there. We just have to hear it, listening. I mean, what happened for me was that I just began to learn so much. I began to learn, at least, what other people felt. And what they wanted to say before cutting them off with my own, you know, diatribe. I would - I used to do 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 because I thought I knew what they were going to say. 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. 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: After 17 years of silence, John Francis got so good at listening to other people that he'd almost become a different person. And the voice he once had - kind of angry, a little combative, unsure - it was gone. And so on Earth Day in 1990, John gathered a bunch of friends and family and he told them to meet him at a hotel in Washington, D.C. And he stood in front of them, and for the first time in 17 years, 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.

RAZ: John Francis. His entire TED talk and his amazing story can be found at ted.com. More ideas about the power of quiet in just a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.