On Loneliness & Listening | A Lesson From Nature

Given my bilateral, high frequency hearing loss I’m unable to hear alarms emitted by digital watches or small appliances. It’s ironical given my linguistic faux pas of 1990. In response to a question asked by a South African woman I mistakenly replied in my beginner’s Tshivenda, “I have big ears like an elephant.” So, despite my elephant ears I can’t hear the smallest of high frequency sounds!

Unlike me, you may not have physical hearing loss, but likely you have chronic deafness of another kind: to the invisible yet real words, conversations and anguished cries of people all around you.

Like the everywhere-yet-undetected airwave frequencies that cloak our lives, there are invisible-yet-real conversations that occur incessantly both in the human and animal worlds—if only, like science correspondents, Chris Joyce and Bill McQuay of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we had the willingness and imagination to listen when most people listen not and hear nothing.

This is the motivation for National Public Radio’s recent summer series, Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound. Cara Philpin writes, “whether you’re a night owl looking to sympathize with those crack-of-dawn bird calls or a beach bum jolted by that brassy seal bark, it’s good to be a human who knows how to listen.” (emphasis added)

Are you a human who listens well?

Are you one prone to hear the anguished subtlety of words and emotions of those who occupy your daily personal space—your children, spouse, neighbors, employees, and colleagues?

Or do their fears and unspoken messages remain undetected because you, yourself, perpetually live your life running ten minutes behind schedule, too hurried, harried and worried to hear your own racing heart, let alone someone else’s troubled heart?

As newlyweds my wife and I lived with my grandfather for three years soon after my Mamaw died of cancer. I frequently and shamefully remember a conversation he and my 25-year-old self shared one evening. He was 83 and had begun dating a 59-year-old divorcee.

A fear of co-opted inheritance prompted his four, much-older-than-me children, to ask if I would confront him with his error of choice if not moral misstep. Regrettably my youth conceded to my elders’ request.

So one evening prior to my young family’s relocation to South Africa he was sitting in his favorite hunter green Lay-Z Boy chair peeling an apple, as he ritually did each evening before bed. I walked in to his room and shared his children’s misgivings with him, after which a deep silence ensued. Then, through a soft, tear quivering voice, this gentle, kind, simple but not simpleton blue-collar worker shared this—“All I know is that I don’t want to be lonely.

Air Supply’s 1982 hit song, “Two Less Lonely People In The World,” with lyrics “when dreams are wearing thin and you’re lost,” still speaks to human collective experience.

My granddad’s dreams were in the twilight phase, “wearing thin,” and the lostness he felt at the death of Mamaw, wife of 50+ years, and of my family’s imminent departure after three year’s of shared residence jolted his familiar life. Loneliness became his greatest fear.

An endemic, shared experience of loneliness in the twenty-first century is irony to the n-degree, given how social media connected we are. Individuals have hundreds if not thousands of Facebook “friends,” equal number of Instagram “followers,” and similar LinkedIn “connections.” Despite North Americans’ impressive “virtual connectedness” daily evidential experience indicates disturbing self and relationship disconnects—a pathology, of kind. No wonder at least 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health illness.

As Julia Cameron sadly observes in The Right to Write, “Ours is a perishable age. We have cup of soup meals and entire relationships. We talk on the phone. We say, ‘I love you. I miss you,’ but, as the truism correctly has it, actions speak louder than words. . . .”

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Filed under Life, Mental Health, Perspective, Relationships

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