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20101015-the-inner-ear-by-joel-hartse“I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness / Keep all our bad ideas / Keep all our hope / It’s here in the smallest bones / the feet and the inner ear / It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen”
—The Weakerthans, “My Favourite Chords”

I need to be listening to music all the time. Not because I want to, necessarily, but because if I don’t, the sound in my ears will drive me bonkers.

Fifteen years of playing the drums, usually without earplugs, is probably not a good idea. I’m pretty sure this is the main reason that I have tinnitus, a more or less permanent ringing in the ears, an ailment which falls someplace between ill-defined stuff like chronic fatigue syndrome or phantom limbs, and verifiable damage to your body, like having a kidney removed or going bald.

I first became aware of my tinnitus, back in the halcyon days when I had a full-time job with insurance and could go to the doctor for things that I just thought might be a problem, when I made an appointment with a hearing specialist. I’d recently noticed my ears ringing not only after concerts, but also before I fell asleep at night. I also had to keep asking people to repeat things. The doctor (was she a doctor? she had a white coat on) welcomed me, and as she closed the door to the carpeted soundproof room where she was about to administer a hearing test, told me that there was no actual way to diagnose tinnitus.

I was disappointed: how could I know if I had it? Well, she said, I’d hear a loud ringing in my ears when there was total silence. That much was obvious already, I thought.

“You mean like this ringing sound? Ha ha,” I said, jokingly, since there was a obviously an audible—rather loud, even—high-pitched ring permeating the room, making it difficult to hold a conversation. I wondered why they would be broadcasting such a loud sound in a room where hearing tests were held.

The doctor smiled and looked at me, with that tentatively positive expression reserved for crazy people who mean no harm, in silence—what I suddenly realized was, for her, actual silence. There was no sound in the room. It was in my head.

The doctor went on to tell me that I had no significant hearing loss, but that was years ago and I’m a little scared to go back and see if things have changed. I haven’t played the drums much during the last three or four years, but I’ve spent more time listening to music in headphones than ever before, and starting last year, I found that some sounds, played at a normal volume, feel like a knife in my ear.

This, apparently, is called hyperacusis, or unusual sensitivity to certain sounds. It’s best friends with tinnitus—they often appear together—and like its annoying partner, can’t really be explained or cured through anything approaching normal medical science. Both conditions are “treated” with therapy rather than drugs or surgery—the goal is to get you to accept them and live with them.

It’s kind of cruel—I either always hear a sound, or, if I want to try to block that sound with another sound, I run the risk that the solution will be worse than the problem. The computer speakers on my wife’s laptop are a particular offender—listening to anything on them, even my favorite music, is excruciating.

Lately I’ve heard about something called Pink Noise (which unfortunately is not the name of a gay punk rock band), but which, if you listen to it, can actually help train your ears to not ring or freak out every time someone drops a plate.

I suppose this would be a good thing—I don’t want to feel like my ears are screwed up. But there’s a delicious metaphorical resonance with faith, I think, that would be lost if I trained myself to ignore tinnitus.

I’ve always said that music—sound—is what best helps me give a shape to my faith, to make tangible something I don’t really understand all that well but feel an acute need for. Even when I don’t know what I believe, there’s a persistent ringing in my soul. It’s a still, small, annoying voice, but both kinds of tinnitus—auditory and spiritual—are always with me, waiting for when my mind clears, reminding me there’s something important going on that needs my attention.

Faith—like hope and tenderness—lives in the smallest and strangest places. I have no choice but to listen.


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