Late this spring, I got quite sick. A little cold turned into bronchitis and laryngitis. While I've had a hoarse voice before, this was different. For 7 days, I was completely, entirely unable to make a single sound.
When my voice returned, it was a mere croak, then a soft whisper for 5 minutes a day until finally, about two months later, it resembled the strong voice I'd previously taken for granted.
For someone who loves words as much as I do, it was a shocking experience to suddenly be without the voice I had always relied on before. During this time, I began to reflect on what life is like when you take away such a basic tool of communication. Here is what I learned.
1. Conversation Is an Art
Thankfully, we live in a digital age where many of our conversations, discussions, and questions can take place over email or text. I relied on these quite a bit, as well as the old-fashioned tool of writing with pens on paper.
While I was eternally grateful to have these forms of communication at my fingertips, I deeply missed the art of conversation. I am a chatty person and talking is one of the ways I feel most deeply connected to those around me.
Not only does a natural back-and-forth build trust, but engaging in a meandering conversation with someone conveys a sense of respect by implying that the person you're speaking with is worth your time.
Plus, I love stories. And sometimes you have to build up to a good story in a way that better fits the artfulness of verbal exchanges more than the succinctness of texts. This is hard to do when your voice is limited to 5 minutes a day. So while I recovered, I paid attention to those around me and was profoundly grateful for the people who have mastered this art form.
2. Listening Is a Skill
The second thing I discovered was something I already knew, but very much needed a reminder about—the skill of listening. Being physically unable to interject anything into a conversation made me aware of how frequently I wanted to add something to the discussion. But since I was literally unable to, I was forced to exclusively listen instead.
Partway through my recovery, I decided to make the most of this opportunity and focus on what I could learn from listening to those around me. Stepping back in this way allowed me to have a new perspective of the creativity and diversity of other people's responses to a situation.
It reminded me that the most vocal person in a group isn't always the person best suited to answer the question. In fact, we all benefit when we pause and observe how a quieter person might resolve the situation. What we hear might surprise us and take us all to a new place.
Photo taken at Castello Aragonese d'Ischia, Italy (c) Amber Byers.
3. People Will Make All Kinds of Assumptions about You, but Most People Are Trying to Help
Near the tail end of this experience, I left for a pre-planned volunteer vacation in Italy. I was still unable to speak freely all day long, so I used my trusted pen-and-paper method of communicating with many flight attendants, hotel staff, merchants, and strangers along the way.
Traveling without the full use of all of my abilities for the first time in my life gave me a unique perspective. Many people wondered whether I spoke English or Italian, and several assumed that I was deaf and took the pen to write their response back to me. But everyone who sized me up used that information to decide how best to help me.
It opened my eyes to what an incredible support system we have around the world. And it reminded me that while we may fear being judged by others, most of the time when we're being judged, people are using the information they glean from that assessment to figure out the best way to interact with us.
And that is a beautiful thing.
4. Our Words Leave a Legacy
I admit there was a point when I wondered if I would be mute for the rest of my life. I daydreamed about becoming fluent in sign language and what my life would look like. I wondered what I would miss most about never having my voice again.
I pondered how many of the words I say every day are meaningful and how many could disappear forever without any real loss. I asked myself what I wanted to leave behind if my voice was a limited resource.
And I realized that I wanted my loved ones to remember my voice as one that was used with kindness.
So as I slowly recovered, I chose to use my 5 minutes a day to tell my special peeps that I love them and to praise them for things I noticed that day, in the hopes that if I ever completely lost my voice for good, they would remember me sharing words filled with love and not critiques that dash their confidence.
While it took an extreme experience in my life to understand these lessons, I invite them to stay with me even now that my voice has returned. Namely, I appreciate the great art form that is conversation, I listen and observe without jumping in, I remember that we are all surrounded by a beautiful network of support, and I focus my words on infusing love.
May you find these lessons in your own life whether your voice is strong or not.