Aug 2020 The Morning Call
Have you ever tried living in silence? I don’t mean the TV is off or there’s no one else at home. You’ll still hear sounds from the house or your own sounds of turning the water on, flushing the toilet, closing a door. I mean real silence, where you hear nothing. I spent a day that way a couple of weeks ago, not by choice, and it opened my eyes to some things.
First, I should note that I already have some hearing loss, albeit nothing profound. I got hearing aids last year and they’ve mostly allowed me to watch TV without cranking up the volume and more easily pick up conversations in crowded places. But I noticed recently that even with the hearing aids in, I was struggling with some TV programs and conversations. I concluded that wax was building up in my ears, a common problem for me. I had them cleaned a year ago, and it probably was time to do it again. My wife told me to lie on my side and let her fill each ear with hydrogen peroxide so it could fizz and loosen the wax. Seemed reasonable.
But when I got up from her treatment, I couldn’t hear anything. For me, the TV was on mute. I saw my wife’s lips moving, but no sound. Faucets, toilets, door – no sound. I was scheduled to play golf that afternoon, driving my daughter and a neighbour. But it wasn’t safe for me to drive. So I sat in the back and watched them converse about … something. I had no idea what, except when they shouted to me. At the golf course, I shared a cart with another friend, but I couldn’t hear her, either, unless she yelled. I couldn’t even hear the sound of my club hitting the ball. It was eerie. Afterward, we stopped for a sandwich, and I just watched them converse. It was tremendously isolating.
I’ve experienced something like this before. Several years ago, I attended a Centre for Vision Loss dinner in which we all were blindfolded before we began eating, to give us a better sense of what it’s like for people with serious visual impairments. I felt incredibly isolated in my darkness, even in a crowded, noisy room.
I’m telling you this story today because my loss of hearing was a revelation to me. Have you ever been around people, usually elderly, who can’t hear? Too often, they find themselves watching what’s happening around them without participating themselves, alone in the silence. I suspect it can lead to incorrect conclusions about their mental acuity.
I’ve been focused a lot on empathy lately, mostly encouraging white people to spend more time listening to what people of colour are saying about systemic racism. But although I think it’s entirely appropriate to focus now on what they have experienced, the conjunction of my temporary deafness with a real news event reminded me of another group that deserves a legitimate attempt to put ourselves in their shoes. The police.
I’ll offer no defence for the routine harassment and occasional violence that people of colour have come to expect. But I’ll also acknowledge that I’ve never had to answer a domestic violence call or make a traffic stop not knowing if the person has a gun and might decide to use it. Nor have I had to subdue someone who is behaving erratically or even violently. So in spite of our legitimate focus on real police misconduct, I’m never inclined to rush to judgment about the way someone reacts to a situation I’ve never experienced and never will.
Anyway, back to my strange day. When we got home, my daughter, who is a nurse, retrieved an instrument that allowed her to look inside my ears and see the image on her phone. What we both saw was a hard-packed wall of wax, crammed into each ear canal. This was a relief, because there was a relatively easy solution.
My wife managed to get me an ear-nose-throat appointment the next day. The physician’s assistant explained that the plastic dome from some hearing aids can pack the wax deeper into the ear. Somehow the peroxide had exacerbated the problem. There came a point as he removed the wax that I suddenly found I could hear him – and his voice sounded deafening. In fact, I spent the rest of the day marvelling at how loud everything sounded to me. I loved it.