Where I describe the flood of sounds that come with a new pair of hearing aids.
Windshield wipers silently swiped back and forth. I drove past rainy Illinois farm fields toward the audiologist’s office. After too many unheard whispers and missed cries for help from my sons, it was time. For the first time in my life, I decided to purchase hearing aids.
The audiologist looked like a defeated version of Steve Jobs stuck in a boring day-job. Paper piles and random plastic ear molds lined either side of a narrow desktop path between his side and mine. He slid an instruction pamphlet toward me and polished his wire glasses on the bottom of his shirt. I felt nervous like a grade school band kid waiting for my first rental flute. He carefully removed my new hearing aids from a little felt-lined black box. Batteries clicked into place, the aids started to squeal in his cupped hands. He forced a tired half-smile, “Ready to take them for a drive?”
Dr. Jobs was so procedural and matter-of-fact, I got the impression my first test drive with hearing aids would be like the easy flick of a light switch from off to on, dark to light. I was wrong. After the long slow muting of a million tiny sounds, the sudden ability to hear is not at all like a simple light switch. Re-amplification is more like an auditory tsunami.
Joy and Misery
The initial gift of hearing is both joy and misery wrapped with the same bow.
On the drive home, I found myself swimming in a flood of new sounds. Rain pinged and plucked on the windows.The turn-signal clicked and the windshield wipers swooshed. My coat made a loud crackling rustle every time my arm brushed my side. The buckle on my leather shoe squeaked. Who knew?
I got out of the car and heard the crystal blue notes of a songbird in the redbud tree. I had completely forgotten that birds sing. I stood motionless with my head cocked to one side. Dumbfounded by the long-forgotten miracle, I felt a sudden compulsive need to tell someone, anyone, “Birds fly AND make music!”
Inside the house, wonder quickly turned to bewilderment. Our wood floors creaked like loud creeping skeletons. Plaster walls echoed the bang of toys and thunder of feet. Dropped pans exploded like gun shots. And a clock on the wall ticked mercilessly like a watery drip, drip, drip on my brain every second, every minute, every hour. I became irritable, snappy, short-fused. For the next days and weeks, I tossed and bobbed in an exhausting sea of un-muted sounds.
The frustrating flood of sound is not uncommon with new hearing. A lot of people quit using hearing aids because of the annoyance at the start. In her amazing narrative collection, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard described a similar response among blind people who surgically regain sight.
“For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning … The mental effort involved … proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.”
It’s not easy to suddenly regain what has been lost. The sudden acquisition of a new sense can be overwhelming. Sometimes, miracles of restoration require a whole lifetime of recalibration.
Muting the Noise
After a first fitting for hearing aids, two important things need to happen. Mechanically, a few follow-up appointments are necessary to tweak the instrument levels and eliminate extreme highs or lows. But more importantly, the brain has to re-learn how to hear and how to listen. The mental adjustment takes time.
In the first days of hearing, a whole host of sounds must be catalogued as noise. For example, at first the hiss and hum of a fluorescent ceiling light warrants attention. It’s a new sound, after all. But the light bulb is not as important as the little son who is pulling on my sweat pants quietly asking for me to pick him up and hold him. In the larger scheme of listening, the relentlessly ticking clock doesn’t warrant my attention; neither does the squeaking shoe, or the regular click of the furnace. Instead, children’s whispers and door bells gain priority. Eventually an entire raging ocean of small noises is catalogued as background sound and a wide pool of sameness begins to differentiate. With the repetition of identification, noises mute and sounds with meaning amplify.
Seeking the Meaningful
In the practice of learning to hear, larger questions started to emerge about the stuff of my listening. Hearing is a mechanical practice. But listening is a choice. Which made me wonder, “What do I listen to … what usually gets my attention?”
It wouldn’t make sense for me to decide that light bulbs and creaking floors require my daily attention over my sons. Nobody would advise me to listen to the washing machine over my husband’s couch conversation. And yet, the noisy clamor of tv and radio and iPhones often get first priority of attention in a room full of people. Often, the noise gets priority over the meaningful.
Listening is choice, all the time, everyday. Ultimately, my brain and soul will pursue what I listen to. It matters where my attention goes. Do I choose to pursue messages with meaning, to seek sounds that require interaction and response? Or do I choose to give my attention to noisy distractions, and destructive messages?
Some days, when the noise of the world gets especially loud, I take out my hearing aids. I sit in the silence and listen to my heartbeat. I feel my lungs inflate with each breath. I remember that I am a spiritual being in a physical body. And something shifts. In the quiet I remember the God of the Universe who restores my sanity and heals my soul. I listen for what matters.
And maybe that’s my biggest lesson from that first pair of hearing aids …
In a world full of clamoring sounds, we must all learn to sift through noise in order to hear what matters most.
Head over and read, The God of the Fourth What.
“Seeing” by Annie Dillard (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperPerennial, 1974).
Singing Bird Image by Of Shadows and Light, from Flickr