How Losing Your Senses Could Make Sense of Everything Else

If you only had one day to hear, what would you listen to?


Photo Credit: Icky Pic via Compfight cc

About four months ago, I began to lose my hearing.

Every few days, for about thirty seconds, I would lose my hearing completely in my right ear. The doctors couldn’t find an explanation. But then a chiropractic adjustment seemed to resolve it. For about six weeks. Then it happened again, in the other ear. And then it happened again and again and again. As I waited a day to see the chiropractor, my anxiety swelled. I thought of the music I love and the sound of wind in autumn trees and way you can hear my wife’s contagious laugh from two houses away.

And I started to panic.

The Day Dis-ease Happens

We don’t think about disease and disability and death until we have to.

And that’s a good thing. If we walked around constantly ruminating about disease, life itself would become a dis-ease. There is something healthy in our capacity to compartmentalize some things for a little while. But what do we do when those things walk out of their compartment and sit down in the middle of our lives?

I get scared.

Some people get angry. Others get compulsive. Some people try to solve the problem until they run out of possible solutions. Some people simply shove the thing back in its compartment and refuse to think about it. I wish I was capable of that, but I’m not. I don’t get as scared as I used to, but I still wake up in the wee hours of the night thinking about it. And it still intrudes into my waking hours: a thought I didn’t even realize I was having that makes my heart skip a beat.

As I waited for my chiropractor, I tried to think of the healthiest way to let my fear out of its compartment. I thought of the question many of us will play with from time to time: If I had one day to live, what would I do?

Oftentimes, the answer to that question includes radical things like quitting jobs and jumping out of airplanes and soaking up pleasure and tearful goodbyes to loved ones. It’s an extreme question about an extreme situation that elicits extreme answers. It wasn’t helpful. So instead, I began asking a different question:

If I only had one day to hear, what would I listen to?

The Day Treasure Happened

Two days after I began to lose my hearing again, I arrived home on a Thursday evening, weary from a long week. As usual, I was craving silence.

I have three kids—I said goodbye to silence a long time ago.

So, as usual, I opened the door and, as usual, I prepared myself for the onslaught of school updates and questions and fights about toys and protests about the dinner selection and resistance to bedtime.

But on this particular Thursday, something unusual happened.

The three little voices came at me and—on the day I was imagining was my last day to hear—I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I soaked it all in. Every lilting word and every whiny cry and every petty jab. I wanted to hear my wife laugh with them, and I wanted to hear her get frustrated at them. I wanted to hear the clink of glasses and the clank of silverware. I wanted to hear the kids chewing with their mouths open. I wanted to hear the doorbell ring and the dog barking like an idiot. Like an old Aerosmith song, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

With one day to hear, the cacophony felt more sacred than silence ever could.

With one day to hear, the noise in my ears became music to my ears.

With one day to hear, the sonorous world rang with treasures.

Usually, by Thursday night, I just want the day to be over. But on this unusual Thursday, I didn’t want it to ever end.

Five Senseless Days That Make Sense of Everything

The MRI was negative and the chiropractic adjustment worked again and this time we figured out what I was doing to displace a bone onto the auditory nerve. The relief was immense. Yet, a part of me wanted to re-live the last day before I lost my hearing. So, this is what I decided to do:

I lived the next day as if it was my last day with sight. The messy house became a gift. I lived the day after that as if it was the last day I would smell. The dead rot of autumn made me dizzy. I lived the next day as if it was the last day I could taste. My toothpaste was like dessert. And I lived the following day as if it was my last day to touch. I realized how warm a hug is.

Here’s your challenge:

Live each of the next five days as if you’re about to lose one of your senses. And then let it make sense of everything else. Let it remind you that life is messy and rotten and tedious and painful, but also a beautiful gift to be seen and smelled and heard and touched and tasted.

In the words of Frederick Buechner, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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38 thoughts on “How Losing Your Senses Could Make Sense of Everything Else

  1. I know how it feels.
    In 2003 I started to lose my left ear,after many oncological studies,(doctors are sometimes very apocalyptic and from the beginning they pemnsaron in a tumor)It was only in the inner ear bones were calcified and therefore was likely to lose my hearing.
    I reacted angrily,It could not be, for the second time in my life was back to the limit.
    The first had gone well with surgery, but
    What now?
    Those early days listening to music at full volume.If left deaf I would not go without Bon Jovi
    Is 2014,hear less of the left ear 11 years ago but when I get to walk my dog at night do not bother me crickets and frogs It seems that we were to be “on the threshold of death” to realize the beauty of being alive

    PS:Monday was my B’day number 43.

  2. What strange temperamental and resilient things our bodies are. Kelly, I am grateful that your healthcare providers were so effective and quick in identifying the source of your problem and giving you tools to correct it.
    And challenge accepted.

  3. Thank you for this reminder. Not only do you remind me to cherish life, but you remind me of when my husband was leaving for Iraq 10 years ago. I hate ironing. My husband wears shirts to work each day that need ironing. (Opps! As soon as I finish this, I’d better iron something for him.) But the last time I ironed before he left for Iraq, I wanted to keep ironing for him. Ironing was a sign that he was with me and not across the world where I wondered if he’d come home. The first time I ironed after he came home, I cried in gratitude that he was home and needed shirts to be ironed. Lately, ironing is one of the two chores I just don’t have time for. That and dusting. But when I start to resent the ironing, I remember that my husband came home from Iraq, and I am grateful to have to iron.

    P.S. My husband is profoundly hearing impaired due to physical issues as well as being too near an IED when it went off. Hearing loss is isolating. I’m glad yours was resolved.

    And now, I’d better iron!

    • Please give my thanks to your husband for his service. And my wife’s husband is in the Air Force, so I understand well that thanks is also due to you. You have made a sacrifice and I’m grateful. I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s hearing loss. Thank you for sharing this tory with me. It’s a good reminder that the drudgery is a matter of perspective, not a matter of fact.

  4. As I was reading this one I was thinking, “Yes!! I get scared too!” I get scared to lose many things and recently I lost a relationship I had such faith in. I have struggled with the loss but not in the ‘I miss it’ way. I don’t miss it. But in the ‘why isn’t my heart broken’ way. I simply didn’t understand why I wasn’t hurting. You put it into words for me. I am grateful that I lived every single day of this relationship as if it were my last day to love.

    • Vanessa, well said. The best way to be sure we don’t regret the past is to give our fullest attention to the present moment!

  5. Something similar has happened to me. About a month ago, I had an accident which required major surgery and which has left me temporarily incapacitated. I always thought, since I have lived alone for two decades and am very introverted, that I was very aware of and present to life. Was I mistaken! I had so taken for granted the ability to move, to maneuver, to use the bathroom unassisted, to take a shower without a caregiver, to drive a car. To do laundry! To be able to bend down and pick up something off the floor! I am happy and very humbled that I can easily afford a caregiver 4-5 hours a day. This accident — and my recovery, which will take months — REALLY derailed my plans for future months — for instance, when the accident happened, I was packing up to move to another city/state — but the accident and recovery have also been SUCH a great blessing.

    • Thank you for sharing this; it is so well said. I had a similar experience during my back injury several years ago. It changed everything, but paved the way for the gratitude practice I wrote about several weeks ago. I do hope your recovery continues, as well as your sense of blessing!

  6. Whoa there Doc ! When did Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” become an oldie? 1997 man! Although I guess that was almost 20 years ago… Any posts on men dealing with aging denial? In all seriousness though, you post helped me to realize that the daily annoyances for me could be gifts for someone that doesn’t have particular senses. I often try to thank God for the “things I take for granted”. Your post confirmed that each breath is a gift of and to be redeemed. Thanks, as always.

    • Hey now, I said “old,” not “oldie.” I think you’re right, that extra “ie” makes a big difference! I’m glad to hear this resonated, and you are very welcome.

  7. What a beautiful challenge. Lately, I’ve been so present to the inevitability of pain and suffering of human life. It seems it’s just part of the deal of incarnation. What makes it endurable is all the goodies we experience through our senses, our bodies. Today I am going to live as if it’s the last day I can see.
    Thank you for the gift of this perspective.

    • Awesome, Cara. Don’t hesitate to come back tomorrow and tell us what you saw. I noticed whole buildings, roads, and neighborhoods that I had driven by many times and never even noticed. It woke me up to my blindness!

  8. Thank you for your writings! I am a divorced Grandmother of four. Three of which are very curious. I was noticing little hand prints on my bathroom vanity and of course the TV screen. At first I was grumbling and cleaning them off but then it hit me….my oldest Grandaughter is now 10 and no longer leaves these little “gifts” :(. All too soon the gifts disappear and children grow up. The silence returns 🙁 So I too have learned to soak up these little gifts while I can. Thank you for your insightful writings.

    • Sandy, thanks for this! I have such a hard time with the smudges, too, but I had never thought of them as gifts that will soon no longer arrive. That is awesome.

  9. Loved the article, to embrace and celebrate all the goodness in our life… our ability to experience our self… What stood out at me was the statement.. ‘As usual, I was craving silence’ and I feel this isn’t honoured in this article… looking from a point of self love / self care, it is also important 🙂

    • You’re right, Gudrun. I think the balance for that statement is found two weeks ago in the post about Halloween!

  10. Thank you again, Kelly, for a great post. It is really sad that most of us are so unaware that we don’t really appreciate what we have until it’s gone (or almost gone). I will take up the challenge and thank you in advance for the wonderful gifts that will be found, I’m sure.

    • You’re welcome, Jenny. As I said to Cara, I hope you’ll let us know about the gifts you find!

  11. Incidentally, a number of people today have asked me two questions about my situation. First, the bone was the top cervical vertebrae, called the atlas, that connects the spine to the skull. It seems I was doing an exercise to yank it off center. Second, if you live in the Chicagoland area and are interested in a great chiropractor, I see Dr. Gerard Hinley, at Lifesource Health and Wellness in Glendale Heights. Having said that, I would encourage anyone who is having similar symptoms to also have a thorough physical exam, because the symptoms could be related to a more serious condition.

  12. What a gorgeous article, so heartfelt. I loved the quote ‘hear my wife’s laugh from two houses away’. So many words resonate. When I had a double mastectomy 6 years ago, I earned the gift of appreciating your body parts, imperfect and aging, before you ever have to give them away. I also learned how lucky I am to be able to reach for a glass in the cabinet or bend down to tie my shoes every day. I love the exercise you took us through and the stunning description of what you heard, saw, tasted and touched. I found myself thinking…I want to ask myself a question that has meaning for me. Perhaps if I had one day left, what would I want to surrender? Having 3 kids as well, and letting them go, as they grow up before me has been my challenge of late. Thank you again, for not just talking about being grateful but for showing us how you experienced it.

    • Marilyn, in next week’s post I talk about loving our kids enough to invest in them, and then loving them enough to let go of our “investment.” So hard to do. Blessings to you as you go through that hard but important process.

  13. This is wonderful. Thank you for it!

    I am 48 and I mostly lost my sense of smell at some point in my late 20s. I don’t know exactly when; the day just arrived that I realized I hadn’t smelled anything in a long time – maybe months, maybe more than a year. There was no precipitating event, at least that I know of (head injuries can cause this, so maybe I had a whack to the head that I don’t remember.)

    My sense of smell returns sometimes, for a few seconds or even a few minutes. I don’t know what triggers that. I always know when it comes that it probably won’t last long, so I stop and savor it deeply. My kids both know instantly when I am having a “smell” moment. It might be a good smell or a bad one. Once, I smelled the salsa and bell pepper on the table deeply and beautifully, while everyone else was gagging on the smell of burnt chocolate, which I couldn’t perceive in the slightest. So strange.

    I’m grateful, if I had to lose a sense, that this is the one. I’d miss the others so much more, if they left (and no, oddly, having no sense of smell doesn’t make the slightest dent in my ability to taste, despite science saying that’s not possible.)

    It has indeed taught me to relish the other senses deeply and often. I guess we need a little pain or deprivation to instruct us along the way, eh?

    • Karen, I have a friend who has experienced the exact same thing. No smell, except occasional hints, and his taste is intact. I’m glad it has awoken you to your other senses!

  14. wow. very well written. and so true… loss makes the present moment brighter, closer, and dearer, if we choose to see this moment for what it is. thanks for this reminder.

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