Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Unbearable Noisiness of Being

Recently, in a mad dash to leave work after an exhausting week dealing with the time change, spring allergies, and PMS, I forgot my headphones. This was a big deal, as I am a stubborn, inveterate headphone wearer. The habit began years ago when I started commuting by bus regularly in a dicey part of town and needed a way to minimize the near-constant “asks” and random comments I got from strangers. As it is, I tend to be a beacon for the downtrodden, (“Hey, lady, you got two dollars so I can get the bus to my AA meeting?”) the angry and misogynistic, (“Smile, you red-headed dyke bitch!”) and the desperate (“I just need five dollars for my shelter fee.”). I can tolerate the normal amount of asks and run-of-the-mill harassment, but over the years, downtown Seattle has become notoriously difficult to navigate due to increasingly aggressive panhandling. (I’m not imagining this--if you type “aggressive panhandling” into Google search, it auto-fills in “Seattle”.) In times past, the headphones would stave off some of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Now people just feel at liberty to grab my shoulders or wave their hands in my face insistently to get my attention.

Yet my headphone habit persists, because having relied on them for so long, I’ve found it very difficult to navigate the world without them. I’ve always had a terrible time filtering out ambient noise, which makes things like routine trips to the grocery store or walks to the post office anxiety-inducing. Without some way to control the amount of environmental sound that I take in, I get completely overwhelmed. With the headphones, I have control over what goes into my ear space. This has become increasingly essential for my mental health, as the amount of general racket in the world seems to be ever-increasing. For some reason, every store feels the need to pipe obnoxious music and hyper, insistent ads through their overhead speakers, there is non-stop construction everywhere, people are constantly yapping on their cell phones, mothers feel at liberty to verbally abuse their kids in public, and couples have no compunction about fighting at the top of their lungs no matter who’s around them to overhear. Not to mention leaf-blowers.

When I rode the bus for the first time in literally years without headphones, I was astounded at how noisy and discordant everything was. The bus engine was loud, the traffic was loud, some hipster was shamelessly nattering on his phone at full volume, even people’s breathing was unbearably discordant. Ironically, earlier in the week, I had listened a podcast called “Reasonably Sound”, in which host Mike Rugnetta explores ambient sound in our everyday world. He suggested doing a “sound audit”—paying close attention to every sound you hear in your day and thinking about how that fits in with the overall landscape of your life. At that point, I broke out into an anxious sweat and had to stop listening. If I did what he suggested, I’d lose my mind in about ten minutes. At the same time, I think I know what he’s getting at by suggesting that experiment. At its core, I think it’s about mindfulness. I often worry that by blocking out so much of the world; by depending so heavily on controlling my auditory space, I’m not being fully present to my life. Then again, I don’t want to be fully present to my life, because so much of what I encounter on a daily basis is simply demoralizing. I suppose if I was a more Buddhisty-type of person, I would look at it differently; use it as an opportunity to practice compassion and loving-kindness instead just trying to shut it out. But I’m simply not there yet, and may never be. For now, I’m clinging to my headphones and pretending the world is full of beautiful music and calm, rational, educated voices instead of clanging, auditory chaos. Here’s something pretty to listen to.

--Kristen McHenry

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