Friday, 28 February 2014

Ears to Hear: something overheard

‘I can teach you how to hear. But only you can learn to listen.’ That sounds like a typical preacher talking. It could easily have been me. In fact it was the audiologist at Dryburn Hospital where I spent much of the afternoon.

You’ve guessed it, and it’s no great secret: I’ve reached the age when hearing has become a bit of a problem. So I went to a tinnitus group to learn how to manage the condition, and then sat down with a consultant to be fitted out with a hearing-aid.

I’d not looked forward to what I imagined would be large ungainly excrescences over and inside my ears. Nowadays however, they are, pretty discreet. So much so that when I got home later on and sat down with my wife it took her a whole 2 hours to realise I had them in, and only then when I complained about The Archers being too loud.

But they will take some getting used to. Walking home from the hospital was a revelation. My anorak seemed to swish like tin-foil as I walked along. I’d forgotten how noisy a car can be as it accelerates uphill. My own voice, when I said hello in the street, seemed to come from a strange, disembodied place that I couldn’t quite locate. The high-pitched wail of a rusty gate sounded like finger nails dragged across a blackboard. ‘Don’t worry about how disconcerting it is at first’ said the nice audiologist. Your brain will soon adjust.

But what especially struck me as I walked was the sheer richness and variety of the sound world I was part of. The songs of birds in the trees took on a vibrant joyousness that was entirely new to me. I was aware of picking up snatches of amiable conversation as I walked past the shops. In one of the stores there was music, nothing memorable at all, except for the brilliance of its upper registers and the acoustic of the shop interior in which it resonated. I enjoyed the background hum of a city going about its normal Friday afternoon routines. It was if I was hearing in colour once again, and in focus, and not only that but with surround sound to give it all depth and ambience. It was as if I was given back my capacity to listen.

Anyone with a hearing aid will know what a difference the technology can make. It feels as though what was dormant has been brought back to life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear before. But my hearing had become dulled, particularly when there was a lot of background noise or when people weren’t speaking very clearly. Big social events, and American films, were particularly challenging. My children used to gesture to me in imitation of the redoubtable Mrs Richards in that wonderful episode of Fawlty Towers where disasters of all kinds follow from the simple inability to hear and communicate. I hope, for myself, that from now on I’ll be more aware of those whose hearing difficulties are far worse than mine, and who are entirely or largely cut off from the sounds that make life such an auditory gift.  

‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear’ says the Gospel. Like looking and seeing, hearing and listening are frequent images of taking in and grasping a life-changing message. To be able to hear well so that we can listen and understand is truly life-changing. I glimpsed, or rather I overheard, that today.

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