Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Losing an Ear: a Winter's Tale

Last week I lost an ear. Not severed like Van Gogh, I'd better add. Yet in a sense, that is what it feels like. Thanks to the virus that so many of us have had at Christmas time, this one has left me unable to hear anything very much in my left ear. The doctor is pretty sure it's labyrinthitis, an infection of the inner ear. Partial hearing loss is only one of a number of symptoms...but I'll spare you too much information about those. He says it will almost certainly go away with time and I'll have my hearing back. But that's not yet.

On the first day, I could still hear in that ear. By which I mean that the volume was properly "turned up". But the sound itself was alarming. Not only was my tinnitus louder than I've never known, there was also a continuous roar as if I were standing by a waterfall in spate, or a motorway in rush hour. Worst of all was that the sound itself had broken up, "pixelated" you might say. The music playing on the radio sounded jumbled, confused. Even the tuning had gone awry, my left ear sounding half a semitone flatter than my right.

We were listening, as we usually do over our coffee, to Essential Classics on Radio 3. They were playing a Bach cantata, the magical motet-cantata 118, O Jesu Christ, Mein's Leben Licht (O Jesu Christ, the Light of my Life). It was heartbreaking to hear this wonderful music broken into pieces like this. I imagined Michelangelo's Pietà shattered into fragments never to be put back together again, or Rembrandt's Presentation in the Temple criss-crossed with angry knife wounds too deep to repair. I ran to the radio player, turned it off with a vehemence that took me by surprise, and burst into tears. I remember crying "What if I can never hear the music of Bach again, ever? Rather than that, I think I'd want to die".

That day felt like a bereavement. Loss isn't just to do with the people we love whom we no longer see. We can experience it just as powerfully when we move away from a place where we've been happy (leaving Durham Cathedral is still a recent enough event for me to feel a sharp pang from time to time, especially when Choral Evensong is on the radio). Or when we lose something precious to us, like a childhood toy or a wedding ring that has carried the symbolism of a cherished relationship for a lifetime. And we feel it when we lose a bodily function that's vital to our wellbeing. This is my first experience of that. I've been reading Robert McCrum's fine memoir about suffering a catastrophic stroke in his 40s (the book is called A Year Off). He speaks about losing all sensation in his left leg and arm in just this way, as a major bereavement he needed to work through.

It's made me think about disability in a new way. On the spectrum of impairment, what I'm experiencing is as nothing to those who have lost all their hearing. This happened once to a senior priest-colleague of mine called George. One day, without warning, his world fell silent. I can't begin to imagine the shock. Yet as far as possible, he wanted life to continue as it always had. His commitment to worship never faltered. I never saw him frustrated, angry or desperate. In time, he learned how to communicate with the help of some very smart gadgetry. And this wonderful man said to me: "Yes, Michael, to lose your hearing is a terrible thing, especially when you love conversation, music, theatre and all the ordinary little sounds, often unnoticed, that give colour to our daily lives. But I have the memory of them. I can still replay people's voices and my favourite music in my head. And for a lifetime's enjoyment of the gift of hearing, I shall always be thankful."

Last week, there suddenly came into my head a conversation I'd had with my mother when I must have been about five or six. She asked me, out of the blue: "If you had to lose either your hearing or your sight, which would you want to keep?" Some question for a little boy, like one of those dark choices that recur in fairy tales. I remember answering: "my sight, of course. It must be incredibly hard to live without it". She said: "But what about talking to one another? What about music? And what about the ways our hearing helps us find our way around, keeps our balance, protects us from dangers like road traffic that we can't always see but can definitely hear?" If I learned anything from that exchange, it was to try to cherish all the senses I was lucky enough to have been given. Among our close family friends at that time were a woman who had lost her sight as a child, and a man who'd been born without hearing. I'd admired how they had come to terms with such profound disability and had learned to live with it, without bitterness, as people who were as alive as I was. Just like George. Just like so many others.

Last summer we cruised up the Rhine. At Bonn, we visited the Beethoven House. My mother had been brought up in that part of Germany, and perhaps because of it, Beethoven had been her favourite composer. She told me about how the loss of his hearing, how it drove him to near-despair, how he wrecked his beautiful pianos as he tried to hear the sound of his playing. She told me about the late quartets he composed entirely out of his head. I was moved to be in this house where these tragic personal dramas had been played out. I've been thinking of him too, these last few days, and wondering how, if music were my metier, I would cope. Yet some of the greatest music in the world came out of the silence into which he was progressively and irreversibly immersed. That's true heroism in the face of adversity.

Today I listened to a marvellous broadcast in the Soul Music series on Radio 4. The chosen piece was Bach's seasonal Cantata 82, Ich Habe Genug ("I have enough"). It was, I think, the very first cd I ever bought in the incomparable recording made by Dame Janet Baker. Its theme is the Presentation of Christ soon after his birth, when the infant Jesus is brought into the Temple to be offered to God. The aged Simeon has been waiting for this moment all his life; now he sees the promised Deliverer for himself, takes him in his arms and blesses him. "Now Lord, you can let your servant depart in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation." Contributors reflected on how this music had touched their lives. I loved the thought of infancy and age encountering each other, of living long enough to see what has been the focus of your hopes and longings all your life. My mother experienced it in hospital a few days before she died, when she met her tiny great-granddaughter for the first, and final, time. It was a radiant moment, a real epiphany.

I want to keep this in proportion. What I'm going through is a very light affliction compared to the health ordeals so many others are facing this winter. But as I listened to the programme in my personal mono, I experienced a little Nunc Dimittis of my own. It was this. If I lost all my hearing irreversibly, I'd still have my memories of that luminous Bach cantata, of the hundreds of times I've played it, and of the comfort and reassurance it has brought over the years. It would always be there, among the music I've found to be both life-changing and life-giving. I hope with all my heart that I'll be given back my lost ear. But whatever happened, I'd try to be thankful for what had enriched me so much in my lifetime. It would be a big loss, certainly, but I'd try not to see it as an inconsolable one.

I'm not saying I'd succeed. I know myself too well. But I would try to cultivate the gift to be thankful, what the New Testament calls eucharistia. Gratitude, says Christianity, is the only foundation of the good life, our prime duty as human beings, because of the great love with which God loves us and gives himself to us. So I'd try. And I'd also try to find new ways of being attentive to this wonderful world, and the people whom God has given me to love, and the voices of need that cry out for us to listen, and to whom our ears must always be turned in compassion.


  1. Michael, thank you so much for this. I hope you are swiftly restored to full hearing. I can sympathise about the infection, as I frequently have otitis, and at present it exacerbates nausea that is a side-effect of a medication. I am also partially deaf, and hearing aids are both an irritation, because of their idiosyncrasies, and of course a blessing in their restoration of clarity. They have also, I'm told, improved my singing ability!

    Like you I listened to Soul Music this morning, but by chance. I was deeply moved, and resolved to download the episode and listen to all of the series. It spoke to life on multiple levels, and highlighted the need to appreciate what has been, if good, and to say yes to what comes, as gift. My own mother's acceptance of death, in the year 2000, with great appreciation for what she had been given again moved me deeply.

    Another bereavement, apart from the loss of loved ones, was for me the loss of parish and pastoral care of parishioners when illness required my resignation and premature retirement. These bereavements, though we learn to live with them, persist no matter what compensatory experiences occur and no matter how necessary and natural they may be. They leave an ache, and this ache is part of what makes us more fully human, humans in process of glorification. (Let the reader understand). I believe from experience that God does not leave us comfortless nor unredeemed in this area of life, but makes us better equipped to be of help to others.

    You mention Durham, of course. I have just closed a manuscript of 52 poems about the Cathedral and the effects of its history and, indeed, of its very effects. I am hoping to submit it to Sacristy. If you would like a look at it, I would be glad to email you the document, though I'm not sure I have your current address.

    Again, thank you so much for this blog.

    All good wishes,


    1. Thank you Davdid. I found this response wise and moving. Your experience echoes mine in many ways. And yes, God does not leave us comfortless, even if the comfort may come through entirely unexpected routes sometimes. I'd love to see the Durham poems - thank you. If you send me your email address via a Facebook message, I'll respond and then you'll have my address, rather than put either of them into a public forum like this.

  2. I had a similar problem last year, which involves the inner ear,which started to ring and difficult to hear, particularly in services where the use of microphones, distorted the sound that I heard, sometimes making it painful at times.

    Visits to the doctor identified it as a problem with the inner ear, where small beads which filter the sound, become displaced, sometimes by a sudden movement. This leads to dizziness and hearing loss, which is temporary and rights itself over time.

    I just had to persevere, and it has gradually improved, and now, a year later, the problem seems to have become almost imperceptible.

    I had worried that I would lose my hearing, but thankfully, the body sorted itself out and the NHS intervention and advice helped me understand what was going on and stop worrying about it.

    1. That's reassuring. Advice I've had from the GP is similar. I'm learning that sudden head movements are to be avoided at all costs - but that's not always easy at night, especially if awakened suddenly. Perseverance, resilience and a hopeful spirit are all to be coveted.