The road through life is full of both realities and illusions. Can you recognise one from the other? What will likely prove illusory in the end can feel all too real when you are in the midst of it.
How are you feeling, gentle reader, right this instant? What are your senses telling you, or trying to tell you? Let’s focus on just one sense. What sounds are making themselves heard around you at this moment (whether you choose to listen to them, or not)?
Of late, I have been acutely aware of my sense of hearing, and of the privilege of being able to hear. As much as I love the infinite worlds of beauty offered by music and by the sounds of nature, I can be guilty of taking my hearing for granted.
Then all of a sudden, I found myself able to think of little else. Late last month, a large proportion of my ability to hear via my right ear fell offline. My hearing problems ebbed and flowed for the best part of a month. Touch wood, they seem to be on their way to being resolved now.
Reduced hearing in just one ear has an unexpectedly all-consuming impact. Or at least, it did for me. I was surprised how far my world was thrown off balance by just half the sonic picture being lost. What came through my right ear was at times muffled or as if submerged, or at other times distorted by a degree of hissing. My ability to think straight and to concentrate also took something of a knock when my ear was at its worst.
To my shame, I allowed myself to wander a long way down the road of speculating that this might be permanent. Memories of Sound of Metal – the beautiful and surprising film about hearing loss starring Riz Ahmed – came flooding back.* Why did I allow myself to worry so? If my partial hearing loss were to prove permanent, how bad would that really be? So many people have been down that road, and have flourished. Humans are endlessly adaptive.
My worries started to reduce when at last I sought medical attention after two weeks of wait-and-see, hoping that the ear would right itself on its own (It didn’t). An NHS appointment confirmed that my hearing issues were down to a problematic build-up of ear wax. A well-meaning receptionist had initially booked me in for an ear syringing/irrigation procedure. But when I arrived for my appointment, the careworn nurse told me that such a treatment would be premature (given the solidity of the wax over my eardrum), not entirely without risk to my eardrum, and more than likely be bound to fail. She advised that an over-the-counter remedy should do the trick of breaking up the ear wax (It seems to be doing, if very slowly). It was a relief to be told that there should be a solution here.
My worries about what was happening were illusory. My mind was guilty – I was guilty – of exaggerating them out of proportion. The size I gave this problem in my mind was an illusion.
The physical size of the problem also feels like an illusion of sorts. The blockage in my right ear cut off part of my world. Consequently, my mind blew it up to the size of the world. Even at its worst, the blockage itself was in all likelihood a physically minute quantity of hardened ear wax, magnified to a colossal size by my perception of it, and of how it affected my senses. A mountain out of a molehill. An iceberg out of a snowflake.
I know that what I have been dealing with is but a small taste of what it is like to experience difficulties with a sense.
My hearing issues coincided with a particularly busy spell at work. The occasional difficulties with concentration combined with an overflowing in-tray have made the past few weeks feel exhausting. A few days before my doctor’s appointment, I went for a post-work walk through the windy, cold and damp autumnal streets, hoping that fresh air might clear my mind a little… and perhaps even that the winds might help encourage my ear to clear. In keeping with the perhaps not 100% cheery mood of the moment, I was listening on my headphones (through my good ear, my left one) to Portishead’s Roads,* a beautiful and minimal song of purest emotional desolation.
I was distracted from my thoughts – fully taken out of the moment – by something surprising and beautiful. An autumn leaf dragonfly lay directly in front of me in the road. Or at least the illusion of an autumn leave dragonfly. In reality it was, of course, just a leaf (and soon it won’t even be that). But doesn’t it give the illusion of a dragonfly? From a certain point of view?
Not all of what your senses or your mind tell you in the moment will necessarily prove to be true. The roads down which your thoughts take you are not necessarily always the correct ones.
Occasionally, if I feel overwhelmed, I like to grab my copy of Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart from the shelf, and read a passage at random. My lovely friend Heather Bussing recommended this book to me a great many years ago. It has helped me through so many times that felt tough ever since. I first wrote about Chödrön’s book in My every incarceration, way back in March 2014. Whenever I open this book at random, the extent to which the words I read are always apt to my current situation is remarkable (you can decide whether this is reality or illusion). I have just now reached for this book, and the following is genuinely the passage on which I alighted:
“Notice the panic when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness.
“If hope and fear are two sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.”
The road through life is full of realities and illusions. Can you recognise one from the other?
* While Sound of Metal depicts with great sensitivity how Stone deals with abrupt hearing loss (and is along the way educational about hearing, its loss, and the miracle of sign language), the loss of this sense is not all that this film is about. It is also about our need to quiet the voice inside our own head and to learn how truly to listen to what the world and our senses are trying to tell us. You can read more of my thoughts on this remarkable film in When time stood still.