I started a new book today.
I haven’t finished any of the others I am currently reading, but that never stopped me before. The book is Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo. It was a gift from a church friend who knows about my struggle with my hearing loss. Nepo wrote a book on listening as he realized he was losing his hearing. As he described how his relationship with the world around him had changed, I found deep resonance. I was reminded of a conversation I had with Joan, my spiritual director, last spring when I realized my hearing had changed more dramatically than I expected.
“Here’s the question for you,” she said. “How will you listen when you can no longer hear?”
Nepo works with a similar distinction between hearing and listening and he says, “To start with, we must honor that listening is a personal pilgrimage that takes time and a willingness to circle back.” I wrote last night about how our word search came from the Latin circare, which means “to go round.” To listen well we have to circle back to see what we missed, perhaps, or what we failed to take in the first time.
I spend a good bit of time, regardless of who I am talking to, saying, “I didn’t hear what you said . . .” I have worked hard not to let myself act like I heard what I did not, even though it feels embarrassing at times. Often, what I hear is not what was said, so I’m like the man in the joke who says to a friend, “I got new hearing aids.”
“What kind?” asks the fried.
“11:30,” replies the man.
I’ll be here all Lent.
I did get new hearing aids last Saturday. After eighteen months of fighting with the ones I had, I opted for new ones that gave me some more options technologically. The biggest thing is that my phone answers into my hearing aids, which means I can talk on the phone again. After eight years or so wearing these things, I know there is more to it that just putting them in and going on. I have to keep circling back to the audiologist to make adjustments. I have had to learn how to pay attention differently, not only to what I can or cannot hear, but also to as many other details as I can.
My last hearing aids gave me no sense of how loud my voice was, so I talked loudly most all of the time. One day, Ginger and I were having coffee and I asked her to tell me when my voice was a normal level. I kept getting softer and softer until she responded. Then I took note of how my throat felt talking at that volume as opposed to what I thought was my normal volume. I could tell a difference. I have learned how to listen to my voice in a whole different way.
Later on in the book, Nepo makes a distinction that stood out to me.
Two basic forms of awakening and receiving are always near. The mystery of revelation is the awakening through which our habits and frames are expanded by moments of wonder, awe, beauty, and love. And the weathering of erosion is the receiving through which we are broken open into deeper truths.
I remember the first day I put in my hearing aids. We were still living in Durham. My audiologist told me to walk down the hall and see how they felt. I heard all kinds of things for what felt like the first time. I came back to her office, pulling the zipper on my jacket up and down.
“Did you know this made noise?” I asked. Revelation.
These days, I feel more like the extended play version of the blind man who came to Jesus and had to circle back because the first healing didn’t do the trick. Jesus touched him and the man said, “I can see, but the people look like trees.” So Jesus touched him again and things cleared up.
My audiologist is not that efficient. I keep looking for metaphors to describe what is working and what isn’t (“I feel like my head’s in a bucket.”) and he keeps making adjustments. We are wearing away at it, even as I am learning what can’t be helped by the hearing aids, and learning different ways to hear and ask for help. I am being weathered by my hearing loss, I suppose; I am learning to listen a little at a time.
I remember one of my theology professors in seminary talking about the difference in the Christian view of history was that it was linear—moving from Creation to ending up in the presence of God. Most other religions saw history moving in circles, going nowhere. (His words.) I struggled with what he was saying because it didn’t seem to put much value in the present. We were just blowing through this joint on our way to what was next.
If it were not for circling back, I wouldn’t have learned much in this life. The best definition of repentance is a turning: a circling back to make things right, to do things differently, or to find what we missed the first or second or fourteenth time through.
My hearing is not going to get better. The technology will. But more than that, my listening will improve, if I will chose to be weathered into a deeper understanding of how to connect with the world around me.