Last Wednesday, as I lay in bed, a sound arose from within my left ear. A sharp hiss, its magnitude increased and increased with vibrato that shook my jaw bone. The sound traveled through my teeth and down my spine, making its way to my fingers and toes. As my body was catapulted into tremors, the bed shook with it, and soon thereafter, Jonathan Edwards College began to shake, its brick crumbling and timber buckling. The New Haven Police Department investigated the wreckage in the morning, unable to locate the source of the incident.
Over 30 million Americans have tinnitus. Those most affected are senior citizens. I, for one, have had it since I was 15. A result of cochlear damage — whether from whiplash, head injuries or, most commonly, extended exposure to loud noise — tinnitus is a condition characterized by a presence of ambient noise in the ears. It typically manifests as a ringing a la D-Day on Omaha Beach, but it can also take form as a humming, a hissing or a whooshing sound. The sound can come and go, it can be hardly noticeable or excruciatingly loud and it can be at any frequency. The one thing it can’t be, however, is stopped.
My particular case is rather mild. The sound is constant in my left ear, typically a hissing with the occasional low-frequency hum that feels like it could rattle my skull. Though I have tried to shift the blame to my family’s history of hearing loss, the real cause was of my own doing — music. While nearly a decade of playing guitar, taking the NYC subway on a daily basis and headphone abuse hasn’t helped, what really pushed it over the edge was the drums. Almost every day in high school, I’d get home, drop my bags, run downstairs and aggressively play the drums for an hour or two. If I got a blister, I taped over it with electrical tape and hopped back on the kit — there was no stopping me. Through two wooden sticks, I beat out the frustration, sadness and worry ever-present in the life of an overworked high school student. Each triplet took a notch off my Common App, each crash erased an SAT score and each rhythm carried me further from that day’s stresses. Eyes closed in a flurry of sweat, swinging arms and beating feet, I enveloped myself in a shield of sound, ignorant to all out of arm’s reach. While my sonic escapism carried me through some of the darkest times in my teenage life, I paid the price. Drowning it all out cost me silence for the rest of my life.
Every day, we are bombarded with lectures, screeching tires, the voices of friends, music, the hum of the dining halls, the breaks of busses on College Street, applications, the ever-worsening news, the depraved shouting match that is our political discourse and the self-important opinions of pundits (in my case, from within). Life is loud. Very loud. And every day, we are presented with a false binary: Listen or drown it out. At Yale, we are infected with a tinnitus of the spirit, a buzzing restlessness, a worry that is ever-present. We can bury this buzzing in myriad ways: alcohol, binge-watching, a third round of Coco Puffs after dinner. What we forget, however, is that there is a third option: Remove yourself from the source of the sound.
This is not to advocate for life in a vacuum. But consider the labor that goes into listening. Even worse, consider the labor that goes into drowning it out. To constantly live precariously between the terrible and the slightly less terrible, the draining and the slightly less draining never gives time for that which rejuvenates us, that which gives our ears — and our spirits — a rest. Think about what you are giving the light of day and whether it deserves even a second of your time. And rather than drowning it out, find a way to remove the source from your periphery. Find your quiet place (literally or figuratively) and listen to the symphony of your personal silence. Discomfort can be a source of growth, and while you should absolutely engage from time to time with what hurts your ears, truly consider when the damage is worth it. If it’s hearing out the section asshole from time to time, so be it. If it’s reading the news and facing our troublesome political landscape in order to be a well-informed citizen, so be it. But don’t entertain noise for noise’s sake. After a while, you may end up wishing you still had silence. In the words of Jimi Hendrix before his infamous cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Watch out for your ears! Watch out for your ears!”
Eric Krebs is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .