Five years ago, my tinnitus started. Silence was a thing of the past. Then over the last few years, I become more and more sensitive to and annoyed by noise. The quietest woof of a dog in the distance was enough to kick my fight or flight response into action. Every beep, bang or bark was an intrusion in my hearing space. At that point I hadn’t accepted that silence, due to tinnitus was a thing of the past.
Lockdown made things worse. Some noise went away for a while – the bypass near our house was much quieter for a few months. But this was replaced by other humanmade noises – drilling, mowing lawns, and don’t get me started on the pointlessness of leaf blowers. There was an increase in people buying dogs (for company and as an excuse to leave the house more often). More dogs, more barking, more noise. The constant doses of cortisol hitting my system were leaving me exhausted, and a bit of a cow to live with, especially when I shouted out the window at the early morning dog walkers.
Then at the beginning of this year, facing another lockdown of indeterminable length, I knew I had to do something. I had to start listening more. This might sound counterintuitive, surely all I needed was to apply for the position of hermit in a remote Scottish castle. Instead, I decided to listen, so I could take control of the sounds I wanted to hear and learn to adapt to or find ways to remove the noise that I didn’t.
Sound is something we want to hear, something that pleases us.
Noise is an unwanted sound, often humanmade.
For example: at the moment I’m stood in front of my window, it’s a beautiful spring morning, the birds are flirting with each other and busying themselves making nests. This is a good sound. In the near distance, there’s a delivery vehicle announcing to the world with eardrum-pummelling squeals, that it is reversing, this is a bad sound. Before, this would have led me to don my noise-cancelling headphones, removing both the good and bad sounds. No more birdsong!
So, if I want the birdsong in my life what can I do? Well now, I take a little more time and care when I’m listening. I can rationalise that the irritating noise will soon go away, and the birds will continue with their tunes (well, at least most of the time I can, it’s a work-in-progress). I try and tune into the sounds I want to, and let them flow over the noise, a DPD van reversing is little competition for a wren at full blast. This takes some time and practice, a bit like meditation, but it’s worth it, even if you only manage a few minutes at a time to start with.
I believe we should be more active listeners to the world around us, rather than just accepting the noise. And this is especially important now while the world is a bit quieter and we can hear the sounds we want to hear. Noise pollution is not only stressful, but it also shortens life expectancy. A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that in Western Europe alone, at least 1.6 million healthy years of life are lost to noise pollution.
There are some noises that I’m working to appreciate, rather than remove. The sound of people gathered in the park outside, chattering away, is something that, especially at the moment, should be cherished.
Some noises are hard to appreciate or remove. Other than stealing all my neighbours DIY tools, there’s little I can do to silence that noise – and neither should I, they have a right to look after their property. I can however remove myself from the noise by going for a walk. I can also lead by example – this year we’re replacing our noisy electric lawnmower with a quieter cylinder one.
For bigger noises, think planes, trains and automobiles, there are various groups you can join or support who are campaigning to either silence or quieten these intrusions. For example, HACAN campaign for those affected by the noise from planes taking off and landing at Heathrow.
And it’s not all birdsong and wind rustling through the trees for me. There are still many times when the noise gets to me and I feel my anxiety rising. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach a sound nirvana. But for the sake of my health, and those who just want to walk their dogs at 6 am, I’m trying to accept the noises I can’t change, let the sounds I want to hear into my life, and work with others to remove or reduce the ones that are doing us physical and mental harm.
But for now, why not open a window and have a listen to what is going on in the world around you. Sounds are subjective, ones that make me happy might make your teeth itch, and vice versa. So, try listening to the ones that make you smile, relax or feel part of nature. Those are the ones we need to amplify and appreciate before they’re buried in a world of noise.