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Hearing a New World
T. Michael McNulty
Last week I got hearing aids. They changed my world.
Some time ago I saw a video of a small child who had been deaf from birth experience the activation of a cochlear implant. The look of amazement and joy on the child’s face was a delight to watch.
My particular hearing loss was the result of attenuation of high frequencies. As a result, I often perceived ordinary sounds as muffled, and sounds that primarily consisted of higher frequencies I often missed completely. I would sometimes miss words, even key words, in conversation, announcements and presentations, leaving me in the dark about what had actually been said.
Having cataract surgery revealed to me that the world is not beige. Getting hearing aids is so much more vivid an experience. I had resisted for years, thinking it was giving in to old age. “I’m only 82!” I said to myself. Now it’s as though a world that has been trying to speak to me all this time is finally getting through.
I have been a fan of Thomas Nagel’s profound “What is it Like to be a Bat” for years, and I used it (with mixed success) to try to get my students to imagine experiences different from their own. And a few weeks ago I read Ed Yong’s fascinating An Immense World, about the sensoria of animals. Yong opened up for me a much broader universe, in which flies taste with their feet and cephalopods camouflage themselves by changing colors, even though they are colorblind. With my hearing aids it’s almost as though I have a new sense.
I didn’t know that my computer keyboard clicked when I typed, or that when I pushed my right mouse button it made a noise. Light switches now have a satisfying snap rather than the dull thud I’d gotten used to. I can hear my pants legs swish against one another as I walk. My sink drain has a fascinating gurgle as the water runs down it. Putting down my coffee cup on a hard surface produces a crisp protest. And the interior sounds are no less a revelation. I wonder at the stranger whose voice is coming out of my mouth. I can hear the comb going through my hair, and my electric toothbrush sounds like a threshing machine.
My environment keeps calling attention to itself. The walls of my room groan with temperature change. The earth and the rain have a dialogue. The sound of wind is a revelation. I can hear the birds and insects that I had been only notionally aware of before.
It is difficult to describe the experience of finally being able to distinguish all the words that someone else is saying to me. I can now better engage the ideas, feelings and desires of others, because I can actually hear them. It is really an experience of moving in from the periphery, of being incorporated into the lives of others. They draw me in, and I am richer for it.
Not everyone hears sounds. But for me, enhancing a diminishing ability is a great blessing.
T. Michael McNulty, SJ, Ph.D.
T. Michael McNulty, SJ, received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1970. After 30 years teaching philosophy at Marquette University and 9 years of advocacy work in Washington, DC, he joined the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking as Scholar in Residence in 2015.
Published August 23, 2023.
Cite this article: T. Michael McNulty, “Hearing a New World,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.