I was twenty-five when I realized that I was the lucky gene-pool winner.
I woke up one morning and couldn’t hear my alarm clock–then I rolled over and could hear it
just fine. After visits to my family doctor and a specialist, I found out I had otosclerosis, a fusing of the tiny bones in the ear. I’m the only one of my generation to have inherited the condition that afflicted my father and all five of his siblings. Hence my wisecrack about genetic triumph.
I remember how apologetic my family doctor was when he gave me the news. He was one of those old-fashioned GP’s who was there at my birth, did the blood tests when I got married, and now cared for my husband and child as well. He was fatherly in the best sense and looked at me as he would have one of his own children, seeing years of struggle ahead.
At the time, I was married, had a three-year-old son, was doing theatre work, and teaching college students part time. I took the diagnosis in stride. In fact, I was kind of relieved. This not-being-able-to-hear was not just my imagination; I was not just being difficult. I would tell my students, “You are going to have to face me and speak up, I have a hearing impairment.” I could turn up the TV (in those dinosaur days before closed captioning) “because you know I can’t hear!” I got good at positioning myself so that people spoke into my “good” ear. I was fine. My dad had had surgery on his ears just before I was born, and then worn hearing aids for the rest of his life, I figured that when it got bad enough, I would too.
Over the next eight years I had two more children and the otosclerosis worsened with each
pregnancy. On the one hand, I was the only mom who wasn’t bothered by how loud the girls were during Brownie troop meetings. On the other hand, I kept moving closer and closer to the front in church and at school functions. My husband and children (and whoever else was with me) became my interpreters–anticipating a glance that silently asked, “What did they just say?” I didn’t realize how bad it was because, as my audiologist later said, I didn’t know what I wasn’t hearing.
When I was in my late 30s, I became the coordinator of adult formation at my church. One evening, I met with a man who told me his life story. I could tell from his face and his tone of voice that horrible things had been done to him when he was a child. But I could not tell you what those things were because I could not make out the words. He had risked entrusting me with his sacred and terrible story and I could not bear to ask him to repeat himself.
So, I had the surgeries and got the hearing aids. I still position myself to favor my “better” ear, am very particular about the sound quality on my phone, and am lost without closed captioning. It is getting harder for me to hear my alarm in the morning, but when I take out my hearing aids at night, my husband can listen to whatever he wants in bed next to me and I am blissfully unaware.
One of the surprising gifts of my continued hearing loss is my increasing comfort with and desire for silence. When I was younger, not being able to hear often left me feeling isolated. Now I exhale into the silence each night, I soak in it and am refreshed. Like Elijah, I find God there (1 Kings 19:12-13).
I find it ironic that God has called me to the ministry of spiritual direction, arthritic ears and all.
But I’m not an anomaly. I know several other wonderful directors and pastoral ministers with non-age-related hearing impairment. Maybe those of us with faulty mechanisms are more deliberate about the way we listen. Or maybe there is more going on than that.
We all have impairments to listening. The truth has to cut through my defensiveness, my hidden prejudices, my cultural norms. What is real has to speak loud enough to be heard over the buzzing of my own needs, expectations, fears, and wounds.
In the direction space the only interpreter I can rely on is the Holy Spirit.
This keeps me humble. I am learning to sharpen my focus to probe the energy behind the words that are spoken. I am learning how to listen a broader sense to emotion, posture, movement, and expression. At the same time, I continue to explore my emotional deafness.
My audiologist is encouraging me to upgrade my hearing aids soon. She tells me that I will be surprised at what I have been missing.
Go into the cave of your being.
Invite the Holy Spirit to help you review a difficult conversation you had recently.
What truth was hard for you to hear?
What blockages got in your way?
What healing do you need?
Liz Deal is an Associate Spiritual Director, Supervisor, and Associate Program Director at the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality (WVIS) where she is also a member of the teaching faculty. Her practice is informed by her training in Formative Spirituality and Ignatian Spirituality along with her work with people who have experienced sexual abuse at Rape Crisis Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join Liz for a 12-week Group Spiritual Direction Program via Zoom entitled Learning to Listen to God’s Call.