A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with staff and youth of the Youth Activation Committee of Special Olympics Arizona. I was proud to have the opportunity to support their work by having the chance to facilitate a part of one of their meetings. For my work, our main goal was to get back to an understanding with the youth and adult coordinator of how working with Special Olympics and particularly Project UNIFY is not just something we do, but something grounded in who we are and core to our values system. It is something we live every day and go to sleep with every night.
So I started the meeting by simply asking everyone what values being a part of Project UNIFY helped them live out. Why was the work so important to them? We went around the room and, of course, I was inspired by the sense of love and friendship and equity and justice articulated by these teens as well as the commitment of the adult staff. Incredible, really. However, one athlete, part of her school’s unified flag football team, who had been quite vocal up to this point had not yet responded. So, I stopped and asked if she had anything she would like to offer. Without a verbal response, she dropped her head and began writing, slowly and deliberately.
The room was silent. She kept writing, slowly, deliberately.
(How long do I give her? I have never worked with this young woman. This could go on for hours for all I know!)
She kept writing, slowly, deliberately.
(Are any of the other youth giving me an idea that it’s time to move ahead? Should I move on and come back to her? We really don’t have that much time!)
No cues. The other youth were quiet and patiently waiting. So, I sat down and did the same.
I tried not to watch for fear of her feeling any sort of pressure to hurry, but she was in a zone and really working with her thoughts. It wouldn’t have mattered. As she approached the end of the first page of notes, I again began to wonder just how long this could or should last. But, I waited.
Finally, at the end of page one, she lifted her head. She started to speak and then got timid and lost her thoughts. Her previous confidence was suddenly gone. She was nervous, a bit confused. Her partner, also from her high school, softly reminded her to look at the notes she had just written.
“Oh yeah.” She picked up her pad and began to read. She spoke of the value of friendship and sports and about how it helped organize her days (which was a very clear way she processed and understood the world, by her weekly calendar). She talked a bit about unified football; it was her first season.
And then, after a small pause, she said something profound: “Project UNIFY is an action thing to do and includes students and teachers and other people.” Project UNIFY is “an action thing to do.” Project UNIFY involves everyone in her school. She nailed it. It was beautiful. It was real.
It was also a statement that may never have happened in the pace and noise of our usual way of doing business. How many times have you been in a meeting when there were two or three good minutes of silent thinking? When no one giggled nervously? Looked around? At their watch? Checked their phone? When people sat there in the presence and fullness of silence?
When was the last time you were in a class or a meeting or anywhere for that matter when your opinion was so valued that your peers were willing to sit silently until you could formulate your thoughts? However long it took!?
And yet, it was this silence that gave this young woman power and voice. It was this silence that gave the rest of us humility. It gave her a chance to process and express her world with the skills that she has, not based on the rules and skills of everyone else, and not defined or minimized by the skills we all say she doesn’t have. And, it was this silence that allowed this gift to be shared with us. A gift from a young woman whose perspectives are too often dismissed because of intellectual disability, her profundity and spirit lost in the noise of activity when she was all about action. She was about action that included others in her work and in her sports and in her life – this was her core value.
I am not sure how to write about silence, and I am not sure how and if I can convey the power of the moment and my appreciation of the young people who showed me the way.
I will have the image forever in my mind of watching this young woman write her thoughts, and no amount of time spent waiting could have been more valuable than waiting.
If only we could find the silence in our daily lives and relationships to be open to the genius around us and to create the space for all forms of love and life and genius to come in. We may even find that this silence is the path to becoming our best selves. We might just learn that silence is itself “an action thing to do.”