As the years flow by I’ve slowly been losing my hearing, mostly in my left ear but also in my right. I found myself saying “what” more often, and with my wife’s encouragement I went to an audiologist for testing and evaluation. I’m now wearing hearing aids.
“It will take you a while to get used to them,” the audiologist suggested. “How long?” I replied. “Could be six months,” he offered, “Use them as often as you can.” That’s what I’ve been doing for a month, and just this week I came to understand what “getting used to them,” means, namely that how the world sounds while wearing them becomes what feels normal and not wearing them feels like something’s missing.
I was indeed missing much of the soundscape, its subtlety and dimension lost along with frequencies and clarity. The crunch of leaves beneath my feet – left/right/left/right – takes me back to reveries of my childhood walking home from grammar school in the fall. On the other hand, part of me misses the quiet and I realize that my hearing loss softened the world of sound and its increasingly rough edges.
While out for my walk today I traveled along Hwy 12 in town. It’s a loud, loud, loud, loud world. A sixteen-wheel big rig with a massive Diesel engine sped by accelerating and its noise practically knocked me backwards. It was at that moment the combination of vehicles, technology, and internal combustion engines overwhelmed me. I heard a garbage truck’s warning beep as it was backing up blocks away. Carried by the breeze, the sound of a leaf-blower whined continuously, becoming the background of white noise upon which, all other sounds were layered. The rush of cars and trucks, their tires hissing loud enough to overcome the hiss of my tinnitus, became like waves washing ashore, my mind searching for some way to effectively transform the actuality of traffic noise. The street-crossing signal device booped and beeped to let me know when I could cross safely. It was all too much, and it was then I realized I could just turn my hearing aids off. What I would lose in information I would gain in peace and quiet. And so, I did.
Now that my hearing aids let me hear the world like someone with excellent hearing, I’m shocked at we’re putting up with as normal. Over centuries, human-made loudness of the world has increased geometrically. It has, in most places, fully become the white noise we live with. Natural sounds – wind in the trees, gurgling brooks, rainfall, birdsong, squirrels eating nuts – now compete with four-stroke engines, electric leaf blowers, ambulance sirens, refrigerator motors, lawnmowers, air-conditioner condensers, diesel trucks, and…well you know.
The tradeoff is a tough one. Hearing the world is exhausting but retreating into quiet is distancing. For all the sounds I enjoy hearing, there are just as many I can do without. Going forward, I think I’ll be turning off my hearing aids more frequently; it’s kind of nice to have the choice.
Aging is challenging; I’ve never been this old before. I can’t help looking for a silver lining, some way to appreciate getting older I’ve overlooked. I’ve decided hearing loss is a merciful gift of aging, in its own way gradually softening the blow of the absolute silence yet to come.