Full text of environmentalist John Francis’s talk: The Power of Walking and Silence at TEDxTokyo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
John Francis – Environmentalist and Planetwalker
Well, I begin with music, because music is… playing music is one of those activities, a human activity and it’s also an art form that uses sound in silence.
It’s also a theory that music is, well a kind of part of communication that delivers something important about the speaker and the speech.
So we’ll see if that’s true.
But what I’d like to share with you this afternoon is an experience of walking and silence.
When I was a young man, I really wanted to be a monk, maybe not the spirituality part of it, but the physicality of it. I mean I went to a monastery, and I really liked the robes.
I mean, I really liked the robes. But when I learned that the monks didn’t speak, I said, oh wait, wait a minute, oh no, that’s not for me. And so that dream that I had of being a monk just kind of withered by the wayside.
Now it was kind of a shock to me that 20 years later I found myself walking across the United States and having taken a vow of silence. So that was a big shock.
And now this is me back in those days in 1973, and kind of not monk robes but planetwalker robes. They did just as well.
Now I had actually given up riding in motorized vehicles after seeing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. I wanted to take some responsibility for that. And at the same time, I argued with my friends and my neighbors about what one person could do… could one person make a difference?
I argued so much that I decided that on my 27th birthday, maybe I should just shut up… as a gift for my community. They were really happy, because I talked a lot.
But I started learning things after I shut up. And I said, well, maybe I should do this another day, and another day. And I learned some more, so I should do it another day.
Well, 17 years later, after I had walked across the United States, earned three university degrees, including a PhD in environmental studies, I decided to start speaking again.
And the reason I wanted to speak again is because I had a message, was that… the message was that people were part of the environment and if people were part of the environment, then how we treated each other was really how we treated the environment.
Hmm… well, when I did stop speaking, I did learn some things. The first thing that I learned was that I hadn’t been listening.
What I used to do was I would listen just enough to think that I knew what someone was going to say and then I would stop listening to them and be thinking about what I was going to say back to show them how smart I was. That I knew better, that I knew more, I could say it better.
Well that really ended communication.
Now building on that idea that it takes two to have communication, I realized something else that it takes two to have an argument.
And now listening, I was able to hear things that I ordinarily wouldn’t hear… things that I might have disagreed with before, so this was really a great thing for me. That’s good stuff.
But when I told people this story after I had started speaking, they said Well, John, that’s really great. But how did you communicate if you didn’t talk?
And we heard a little bit about sign language tonight, but I’m going to just do a little demonstration about going to a restaurant, if I went to a restaurant and I had to order breakfast.
Now usually I would ask you to be the waiter but I’m going to be the waiter and I’m going to be myself. So I’m kind of like talking to myself or not talking to myself.
But just to give you an idea how this all works, so yes what would you like to have for breakfast?
Um, two pull-ups what? 2 eggs oh that’s great. Very clever.
And what about… Oh how would you like those cooked?
Blinking eyes, sunny-side up, oh okay that’s good, very good. Maybe you would like to have them over easy, hmm? And to drink, what would you… what would you like to drink something to dip? Tea, Oh, tea that’s very good; tea, very good, tea.
And so that’s how it went and if everything went well, I would have had eggs over-easy and a nice cup of tea. Now remember that cup of tea because that comes in a little later.
Well, not speaking it was almost a given that I was going to listen, and I say almost because not speaking only is an opportunity for us to listen.