06 September 2018

Hearing and Listening and the Difference Between Them

by Brian Thornton

– G. K. Chesterton

I've written before about my struggles with the scourge of tinnitus (if you're curious, you can find a discussion of it here). And for those of you who regularly follow this blog, I've found an ambient noise link that masks my tinnitus even more effectively than my previous favorite: a twenty-four hour loop of the noise made by the warp engines of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This new link is (supposedly) "10 Hours on Mars with Delta Waves and White Noise Sounds for Relaxation and Sleep."

Whatever you call it, it works. Cuts my tinnitus down to nothing. A true boon while I'm working.

That update aside, I have no intention of using this turn in the Sleuthsayers rotation to rehash the challenges that suffering from tinnitus raise in my professional and personal life. Instead, I'm going to do my best to speak to what my life with tinnitus has given to me, not what it has taken away.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying there is anything good about having tinnitus. There isn't. It's a plague. I don't actually know what silence sounds like. And in addition to the ringing, I have significant hearing loss in my left ear.

So when I talk about the positives which my life with tinnitus has brought me, I am speaking directly to the benefits accrued as a result of my struggle to live as normally as possible when living with a constant distraction.

Think of it as training to listen.

Quick reminder: my day gig is teaching. Wanna know what makes an effective teacher? An effective listener.

And that's the upshot.

You see, I can't hear unless I listen. In order to follow a speaker, a conversation, a concert, a baseball game, what have you, I have to be focused, locked in, attentive, listening, or, frankly, the old one-two punch of tinnitus and hearing loss will simply drown out what a person with normal hearing might well pick up on with little or no effort.

Imagine spending most of your waking hours with a certain set of muscles constantly flexed. That's my day every day. Except the flexed muscle is my attention span.

And like any over-worked muscle, my attention span has been known to cramp up!

This is especially true when dealing with large groups of teenagers.


Because teenagers (and stop me if you've heard this before) are loud. Get them together and they tend to prattle and jabber and carry on like a regular murder of crows. Imagine that sort of background noise and the hell it plays with an already loud ringing ever-present in one of your ears.

It's exhausting.

Listening, that is. Going through your day doing it.

Frustrating, too.

Because to "listen" is to be "attentive," to "pay attention" (in French, the verb "attendre" literally means "to listen"). And in a world rife with constant distractions (social media, video games, texting, smart phones, etc.), to be a "listener" is sometimes a lonely thing indeed.

But there is power in attentiveness; a strength not readily apparent to those caught in a postmodern half-life where distraction is the reality. My disability has forced me to pay attention to others in ways I am not inclined by nature to do.

And my life is so much the richer for it. Nuance and subtlety are difficult things to focus on when you've got a constant claNging in your ear. In order to grasp them, to understand them and to celebrate them requires the ability, the discipline to focus. That doesn't just happen and it sure doesn't come easy. Being attentive forces choices on a person, and yet for all that it pays handsome dividends to those who embrace it.

I am a better husband, father, son, brother, friend, colleague, teacher, and yes, writer, not because of my tinnitus, but because of my efforts to manage, and where possible, to transcend it.

I didn't ask for this burden, and I am not above complaining about it.

But I'll be damned if I'm going to let it isolate me.

No matter the cost.

No matter how exhausting.

No matter how maddening.

No matter how trying the sheer effort required to focus becomes.

I'll be damned if I'm going to let it beat me.

See you in two weeks!


  1. I can sympathize as I have a mild case, but you are smart to turn the attentiveness required into a positive.

  2. I have a mild case myself, and I have a sound machine that plays waves at night which solved the midnight buzzing problem. Perseverance is key to everything, isn't it?

  3. Thank you for this article & the YouTube link. I'm going to listen to it although I have the opposite problem ... abnormally acute hearing, from years of listening to doctors dictate. The husband speaks at a very high volume & I am always asking him to keep it down.

  4. The verb to listen is "├ęcouter" in French. The verb to hear is "entendre" (not "attendre", which means to wait). Entendre is also used in French to also mean to understand.


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