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How silence taught me to be a little more considerate

I’m working from a quiet home for the first time in two years. My husband started working in the office again a few days a week. I nearly forgot how to be alone.

The quiet got me thinking about another time in my life that was particularly silent.

Five years ago this month I had vocal cord surgery that required two weeks of voice rest. Try being a working mom of four without talking. You know those late talking, two year olds who act out, hitting kids in daycare? Yep. That was pretty much me. I was actually reduced to stomping my feet and flailing my arms at my kids on more than one occasion.

But that’s not to say I didn’t learn anything from those weeks.

Throwback to those two weeks when I really was “On Mute” all day long.

Following are a few lessons I carried with me once I reentered the world of speech.

  1. Listen with both ears. Right before my surgery, my awesome nephew advised everyone at his bar mitzvah to listen more than talk. Maybe, he said, that’s why we have two ears and only one mouth. As someone who really likes the sound of my own voice, I felt like he was speaking directly to me. Wise advice pre-surgery for when I would have no choice but to listen.

  2. Not talking is lonely. Even with people all around, not being able to converse with them meant that in a room full of people, I still felt alone. I often thought of those who are elderly, single or just lonesome. I try to channel that as motivation to look out for others in the room who may feel alone. I especially missed calling my mom and my bestie everyday. And then I would think of those out there who have no one to call.

  3. Acknowledge someone’s differences and move on. The best people to be around those weeks were the ones who made a joke or offered a kind word upon seeing me and then still included me in the conversation. More often, people whispered once they realized I couldn’t talk or just left without trying to engage. It was as if not talking meant I couldn’t hear. 

I hope to never go through that kind of silence again, but the lessons stay with me, especially this disability month. And while I can’t begin to understand even a little what it’s like to live with a disability, all of us can relate to having more going on inside than what’s visible.

A recent article in the NYTimes Sunday Review imagined the signs we’d wear if we let people know what’s really going on. Try though I might, I can’t find the original article.

But the gist of it stayed with me:

A woman on the train might have a sign that says she’s a single mom, dealing with long COVID and caring for aging parents. That might explain why she failed to notice her bags in the last spot where you could sit.

A guy at work who’s perpetually late to meetings is struggling with an autoimmune disorder gone awry that keeps him running to the bathroom.

A teenage friend who abruptly stops talking to your daughter for seemingly no reason at all might not be cruel. She might be dealing with her own mental health struggle.

Everyone’s got a story and an inner struggle. For most people, the pandemic exacerbated it.

This month’s disability month is a good reminder to be more empathetic to other people’s struggle.

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