While I am not likely to sleep under the stars, I do love the beauty and quiet of being in a purely natural setting. When you can hear the rush of the wind, the sounds of the birds, the flowing of water and silence of nighttime stillness, you find a part of your humanity deep inside yourself that is somehow obscured by the noise and distraction of modern urban or suburban life.

It is especially important to get back to these primal experiences, living, as we do, in a culture that is so filled with stimulation from all sides. The suburban life in which I find myself is filled with visual and auditory overload at every turn. We pop on our headphones and listen to our own music to drown out the noise around us.

In many ways we are bombarded by noise. I listen to my IPod on the train into New York City, but then I put it away when I get to ground level so I can experience the world around me, with all of its noises. But I marvel at how many people I see walking in Manhattan or Brooklyn with their ear pods firmly in place. They are in a zone, somewhere else.

I have heard it said that our plugged-in culture is affecting our hearing –our ears experience music’s impact, especially after prolonged periods and at less-than-soft volumes, as an assault. I have come to the conclusion that whoever says that we are harming our hearing is on to an important message.

My brother, who is a musician, rehearses with his band in his suburban basement. I recently stayed at his house one night so I could get to a morning meeting that was close to his home. The band was practicing in the basement that night. One floor up, my nephew and I could barely hear each other as we said goodnight; at times it seemed that the whole house shook from the reverberations of the drums and the bass. I went downstairs to say hello to my brother, and the sound was so loud that it was completely impossible to communicate with him. He couldn’t sense my presence, so I went upstairs to do my work and await the conclusion of the jam session. I then asked him why it had to be so loud. He told me it was so that they could hear each other to get the right balance of the instruments. Personally, I just don’t understand how extreme volume is anything more than an amplified version of what you’d get if you did it more softly.

Loud music is common at settings associated with fun, such as concerts and parties. It seems to me that our noise over-stimulation, pods-always-in-ears, turn-up-the-volume to drown out anything around us is making us hearing impaired. Loud music gives me a headache. But for some of us, it may be the way to actually take in the sounds.

But, more importantly, loud music also nearly or completely prevents meaningful conversation. I want to talk with the people around me at a party; the fun resides in the connections between people. But when I have to shout over music, it feels exhausting and unsatisfying.

At a recent high-volume party I was anxious to connect with loved ones. Conversation across the table was impossible. One-on-one, trying to talk, we practically sat on top of each other, leaning ears up to mouths, doing our best to catch up across the years, and across the noise. I was totally spent by the end of it. I watched those who were dancing having fun; I found it tiring and trying.

I shared my distress with my kids. In typical fashion, my older son told me that I need to “loosen up.” He asserted that the loud music is what makes the environment feel like a party; it makes it fun. And because you have to lean in close to each other to be able to talk, loud music makes a big gathering an intimate experience.

I appreciate this philosophical perspective; yes, it is more intimate to be conversing within the absence of private space. But I think this phenomenon is worthy of some reflection. If we need high volume music in order to have fun, what does this say about our world?

Our Jewish sages often tout the value of hospitality, as modeled by our patriarch Abraham, who received guests with the highest levels of graciousness and generosity. If we listen closely, we can almost hear the warmth of friendly conversation reverberating through their tents.

We, it seems, may be so hearing-impaired by our pods-in-ears culture that only ear-splitting volume gets our attention. Many of us are evidently so over-stimulated that we need to drown out the experiences around us in order to have fun. I am wondering when friendly conversation was superseded by loud music as the “sound” of “fun?”

Ok, maybe I am just a crotchety old middle-aged party-pooper. But I am yearning for the quiet that enables us to truly hear – the world and each other – without amplification; without strain. I am seeking connections with people that are nurtured in relaxed conversation, where intimacy is generated by the content of our listening and not the posture of mouth-to-the-ear leaning-in to hear.

If you’ll like to sit with me and talk, I’d really enjoy hearing your views on this!

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