The Beauty of Keeping Mum

What I learned about others when I lost my voice

An illustration of a person with sound waves around them.
The Atlantic

All things, great and small, start out as nothing. I began to go hoarse in late summer. I would apologize when rasping unintelligibly on a call, take another slug of water, and chalk it up to a passing cold. Could it be COVID-19? I worried it might be more of the cancer I’d had three years earlier. We say “I’m losing my voice,” but we don’t expect something to sneak up and steal it.

Soon I became a mere whisperer, an annoyance at the dinner table. The dread over what might be causing it was soon counterbalanced by a sense of relief. I came to appreciate the clarity of just listening and leaving things unsaid. Keeping mum revealed unknown beauty in my relationships with myself and others. This Thanksgiving will and should be wildly different from those that came before. As you join in the oddity of eating with family over Zoom, may I suggest something else exotic? Try listening.

My voice was already vanishing when I flew to Montana in September for a long fishing trip. I thought I had an infection, or an inflammation brought on by a bit of acid in the gut. It got worse, so I went to the doctor as soon as I got back, fearing bad news. “Not good,” he said upon hearing me.

He put a camera up one nostril and asked me to read from a sheet of lofty thoughts as he peered at my vocal cords. I am not the Earth’s most pious man, but I often serve as a reader at our Catholic church, and pride myself on my Isaiah. My voice those mornings could rumble up from the soles of my feet and come down like thunder before escaping out the door. At restaurants I had to be careful so as not to be overheard five tables away.

But now, reading for the doctor, I sounded like an asthmatic goat. He was quick with a diagnosis. The screen showed one reddish flap moving and another standing still. “Left-vocal-cord paralysis,” he said.

The cause of that paralysis left him stumped. Had the nerve connecting the brain to the voice box been compromised by a return of the cancer? (So far, scans suggest otherwise, thankfully.) Had many dozens of sessions of radiation finally caught up to me? (Still possible.) A cooler prospect was that maybe I’d caught some bizarre fungal infection, like valley fever, while hiking a couple of months earlier in the Utah desert. (Oh Lord, please let it be that.) Or was it, as doctors like to say, idiopathic? A disease of its own kind, without known origin. Which means that even an idiot wouldn’t know. I may never find out for sure.

My voice was like a windless piccolo; a normal one is like a trombone. Breath is the raw material, so to speak, for great orations and arias and the sweet nothings of everyday utterance. It comes out of the lungs under pressure and vibrates the vocal cords, just as it does with the lips when blowing a horn. From there the noise goes up the throat and into the back of the mouth, as it does past the valves in a horn. There it receives the peculiar contours and intonations and resonance that distinguish my voice from yours: our voice print, which gives raw sound personality. Only when it comes out of the mouth and past the lips is it enunciated into actual words and imbued with meaning.

Being deprived of the use of a single vocal cord, I have learned, is like trying to blow a trombone with one lip hanging loose. You might be able to make some sound, but it will be weepy and thin and pathetic. Ocean waves, the wind through leaves, that passing airliner overhead—all of the world’s intrinsic white noise has greater strength than the weak fart of your own voice. Now I lacked the oomph to launch even a decent sentence.

Before people began to babble intelligibly, the primary purpose of the vocal cords was to keep things like water and raw mastodon meat from getting into the lungs. As one medical text put it, “The ability of the larynx in man to contribute to the production of sound is nothing more than a fortunate side-effect.”

It is that fortunate side effect that allows us to say “I love you” and “Four score and seven years ago” and “Could you please get the hell out of my way?” But when the larynx loses its proper function, you fall back on silence and gestures. There are worse things.

Darwin thought he had figured out how we humans emerged from the misty jungles. But language stumped him. In The Descent of Man, he speculated that language began as the grunts and beguilements of courtship, as a verbal form of competition among males. The very evolution of words, and the naming of things and ideas, was itself a brawl of the strong versus the weak. “The survival of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection,” he wrote.

I have learned, conversely to Darwin, that not talking is surprisingly pleasant and perhaps even beneficial to courtship.

Unable to talk above a wheeze, I sat through entire dinner parties, long walks, and car rides, just listening. Where before my brain would have whirred with the desire and need to speak and would have ransacked my mental archives for stories to tell or witticisms to impart, I just sat and absorbed. Energies and attentions were redeployed. Wonders ensued.

Not long ago, at a breezy dinner outside with two other couples, my wife of 27 years told several stories I had never heard before. I sat there slack-jawed. It turns out that when you don’t have an 18-wheeler passing you on the left, a person feels more at ease. I learned new things about her, and her parents, and the forces that shaped her as a child. “There was something about the total free-spiritedness of my parents that just made me yearn to go off to boarding school,” she said to a friend at the table, igniting a light in my head about her penchant for order.

Another friend told of how he’d been to the village in Sardinia that gave rise to the famous Mediterranean diet. People there enjoy the greatest longevity of almost anywhere in the world. “But when I got there,” he said, “I realized that what allowed them to live so long wasn’t just the food but also the strength of their friendships and the bonds of community.”

I said to myself, It isn’t just the olives, and that too was a delightful revelation. I felt replete on the drive home, deeply satisfied by all the things I had heard and all the things I hadn’t said.

I found this deep contentment in many settings. I had license to call people I hadn’t heard from in ages and say, “You do the talking.” I listened to friends joke and tell stories, and saw attributes in their gestures I hadn’t noticed before. On calls with our daughters, I marveled at the warmth and intricacies of the mother-daughter bonds.

A person is thought to be crazy when he hears voices in his head. The reality is, when left alone, we are all engaged in a steady monologue. We narrate our thoughts and flesh them out in language, whether spoken or not. To that extent, we are always talking to ourselves.

Monks famously take vows of silence. Saint Augustine understood the value of both simplicity and balance. His vow was not an end in itself but a way to clarify one’s thinking and to minimize diversion. I was a failed monk once at a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. I arrived with two white outfits made of simple cloth and nothing else. We never ate after two in the afternoon and were allowed to speak only in the evenings. During the rest of the day I did battle, unsuccessfully, with the voice in my head.

I went to the chief monk after two weeks and told him I was failing in my effort to tame the inner babble and to banish all earthly beguilements. He smiled on my frustrations and set me free. I said one day that I would return to the challenge. Being deprived of a vocal cord is a nudge in that direction. Needing the company of others isn’t a bad thing, but better is being good company to oneself.

I recently had a calcium goo injected into my vocal cord, which has allowed me, however imperfectly, to resume my life as a noisemaker. I jotted a list of lessons learned along the way. Most of us talk too much. Talking saps one’s ability to listen. Days of silence activate the superior voice inside.

All the rest can be left unsaid.