Stop for a minute to count your blessings, and you’ll run out of time long before you get to the end.
Focus on the physical, and sooner or later you’ll be thankful for the sense of hearing. As much as we may enjoy occasional quiet times, people with good hearing are bound to be grateful – even when the neighbors insist on shooting fireworks while we’re trying to watch a nice documentary on TV.
My hearing has been sketchy for most of my adult life, and not because I attended too many rock concerts. About the time I graduated from seminary, back in the early 1980s, I developed something called Meniere’s disease.
Hear me out; the point is coming.
Meniere’s is a condition afflicting the inner ear; for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, too much fluid (called “endolymph”) builds up in the labyrinth, causing damage to the neural connections that control balance and hearing.
The disease is characterized by sudden episodes of severe vertigo and resulting nausea. I can remember lying flat on the floor but entirely unsure what end was up, fearful that I’d fall off the earth.
After eight or 10 years, the dizzy spells petered out, largely because the nerve cells in my right ear had burned out.
I was glad to be done with the vertigo, but the hearing in that ear was also defunct. For the most part, my right ear hears only the constant ringing of raging tinnitus.
This can be inconvenient. Because the brain determines the direction of an external noise by gauging the difference in when each ear hears it, I can’t tell where a sound is coming from. If someone calls my name, I have to turn in a circle until I find them, hoping they will call again.
I went through several very expensive hearing aids over the years, but they never seemed worth the trouble. I still have good hearing in my left ear, though I can’t hear the high pitch of baby birds anymore. Amplifying what remains in the right ear makes little difference.
Another downside of being one-eared is that I can’t hear stereo. No matter how expensive the earbuds or headphones, if the ear doesn’t work, the sound doesn’t come through.
I thought I’d found a solution when I learned about bone-conduction headphones, designed mainly for cyclists or runners who like to listen to music but also need to keep their ears open for traffic.
A pad sits in front of the ear, right on the cheekbone. It vibrates the bone, which transmits the signal directly to the inner ear, bypassing the eardrum.
Unfortunately, my problem is not the eardrum, but what comes after.
I bought a set when they went on sale, and at first, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. The headphones had a nice clear sound, but in time I realized most of it was still coming through my left ear. I might be getting a little more through my right ear, but on a true stereo recording I still miss a lot.
And why should any reader care about my hearing deficit?
Maybe because it suggests a very useful metaphor. My effort to hear stereo again reminded me of how important it is to hear from both sides – or more than two.
We know how hard it can be for couples, neighbors, and societal groupings to really hear each other. Even when we’ve been trained in good listening skills, it’s easy to ignore what we’ve learned. We can be so focused on our own point of view that we’re unwilling to hear the other’s perspective.
This is especially difficult when our conversation partner’s views are opposite of ours or echo an alternate reality based on distortions they have come to believe – or so it seems to us.
Still, we should take the time to listen.
Hearing from both sides has become particularly important to me as I have become more sensitive to racial disparities in our culture.
I grew up in a cauldron of racism, began to escape from it in college, and became deeply convicted of the evils of our segregated history while in seminary.
Still, for years I continued serving churches and denominational groups that were almost entirely white. I had principles, but little practice.
Only when I started teaching at Campbell University Divinity School, where many of our students are African American, did I begin to listen more carefully – and more often – to the personal stories of those whose lives have been under exceedingly different circumstances than mine.
Such listening has increased my awareness of how wrong and how persistent and how systemic is the racism that has crippled our society. And not just prejudice based on race, but on sex, gender identity, economics, and other factors.
I can’t change being white, male, or straight, but I have learned to recognize the privilege those factors have unfairly granted me through the years. I can look for ways to promote greater equity and mutual understanding in the future, to pay something back when I can.
Listening to different perspectives may not give me the ability to change the world, but it has changed me.
That’s where it starts, and one good ear is enough.