Hearing In Pieces

Andy Mineo is a Christian rap artist that has an older sister who is deaf. Growing up, he chose not to attempt to understand his sister because he didn’t understand her disability. He released a song called “Hear My Heart” in 2015, in which he shares about his selfishness and apologizes for never learning to sign in order to communicate with her. I got to see him perform live in November of last year and this song moved me. He began the song by signing about his sister and I realized: this is for people like me. His lyrics throughout the song are so humble and his desire is for the listener to feel the sounds and to understand his heart. Here are the lyrics from the second verse:

I remember your son’s graduation
That’s when I met your friends
And they was all havin’ conversations
But they was sayin’ stuff that I couldn’t understand
Then all of a sudden it felt like, I understood something I missed my whole life
For the first time I was wearin’ your shoes
For the first time I was hearin’ your views
I never knew how complicated life is when you feel so isolated
And I know we don’t speak much
Cause when talking got hard all I ever did was throw the peace up
My big sister Grace, I’m sorry I never learned to sign
And even though you were born deaf
I pray you forgive me for the years I lived blind

Not all people with hearing loss experience things the same way because there are so many different backgrounds and levels of hearing loss. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God, Switched At Birth) says this about different experiences: “In the deaf community, there are different types of people who have different philosophies. Some believe that they should only sign. Some believe they should only speak. Some people say you should use cued speech. Some say you should use cochlear implants. Some say you shouldn’t sign. Some people say you should sign” (NPR, 2010). I’m not even technically deaf in a cultural sense (legally, I totally am). For those of you unfamiliar with the deaf world, I’m technically hard of hearing, and this is my experience with that.

I was born with hearing loss. Due to several ear infections in my early years, my parents didn’t realize that I should be checked for it until I was three. They had taken me to a speech therapist who recommended I get tested. This was when my parents had to make a big decision in how to raise me: hearing or deaf. Since I was already communicating verbally (thank you, speech therapist!), they made the decision to raise me verbally. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I became interested in learning about the deaf culture. I started to teach myself sign language and took classes in community college. If you want to carry on a basic conversation in sign language without any specialized knowledge, I’ve got you. I’ve learned a lot since opening myself up to people like me, but I still have a long way to go.

One thing that is wonderful about the generation we live in is that accommodations are available to me most anywhere. This was something that was actually hard for me to accept, because I’m stubborn and hated that I needed help. If I could, I would’ve figured out how to do everything on my own, but that’s not the easiest thing when one of your major senses is lacking. I also felt like I was trying to take advantage of the system. Sometime in college, I realized that people are more understanding than I thought. I still get stubborn about doing excessive things, but I know what I need. If we’re watching a movie together, you bet I’m going to ask you to put subtitles on. I would rather not let my hearing loss prevent me from enjoying myself.

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With my sister in Disney World. The only recent picture I have that shows my hearing aids.

A big part of my experience with hearing loss has been lip reading. Since I didn’t get my first pair of hearing aids until I was 3-years-old, I developmentally relied significantly on lip reading. Even though it’s something that’s been so engrained in my identity and my experience with hearing loss, it isn’t easy. After all, if a normally hearing person is able to understand 30% of what you said from lip reading alone, they’re considered an outlier (Altieri, Nicholas A., David B. Pisoni, and James T. Townsend; 2011). Another research project looked at the difference between the lip reading accuracy of a person with early-onset hearing loss and a hearing person. This one concluded “[t]he speechreading accuracy of the participants with early-onset hearing loss (M=43.55% words correct; SD=17.48) significantly exceeded that of the participants with normal hearing (M=18.57% words correct; SD=13.18)” (Auer, E. T. & Bernstein, L. E.; 2007). Basically no matter how good you are at it, you still miss a ton. It is pretty hard to get by on just lip reading, and I definitely can’t. That being said, I struggle getting by without it. Communication with people on a daily basis is kind of like putting together a puzzle, piece by piece. I take all of the information I gather from even just a sentence during an interaction and put them all together and hope I completed the whole thing. I take the sounds I’m hearing and match them with the movements your mouth is making. I add this to the information I’ve accumulated from reading your body language and eyes to understand the emotion behind what you’re saying. Every little piece changes how the overall picture looks. Most people are able to put together all these clues subconsciously very quickly, though I’m sure many of you couldn’t do it as well consciously. For me, I have to consciously put together these pieces, which can be exhausting. My brain doesn’t do it automatically because I can’t translate sounds into words the second I hear it. One thing that I have gained from consistently doing this is the ability to be particularly intuitive. Reading your body language and eyes lets me understand people’s unspoken emotions more clearly. I love it because I can tell when something is bothering one of my friends pretty quickly.

With all this puzzle piecing, there are some things that are particularly hard. Crowds are hard. Loud noises and multiple conversations make it hard for me to pick up specific sound cues. Accents are hard. It takes me a little while to get used to a specific person’s lip movement. The lip movements of those with accents are so foreign to me, I have trouble familiarizing myself with the words they are shaping. Mumbling is hard. When your lips aren’t distinctly moving, I cannot decipher what you’re saying. This does not mean I want you to over enunciate. PLEASE don’t do that. It really doesn’t make it any easier. Phones are hard. Relying only on the sounds, no matter how loud my phone is, is just not something I’m good at. Can you blame me? Really, being deaf is hard.

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Being hard of hearing takes a lot of strength to get through the day-by-day life in a hearing world. I’m only human, there’s no way I can do it on my own. My strength to fight to be a functioning member of my community every day comes directly from God. Isaiah 40:31 says “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Boy is that true. Every time I try to glorify my own strength and not give my struggles to Him, I get rundown REAL fast. God is my strength. It is through Him I have the ability to walk and not be faint. He gives me strength in my weakness and grace for every day (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). My only hope is that He is glorified through my experience with hearing loss.

Rosie Malezer says, “Your hearing status doesn’t make you a better person. Your humanity does” (How to Be Deaf, 2016). I don’t want you to feel pity for me or that you are superior. This one time, I had a stranger say, “You wear hearing aids? I’m sorry you have to go through that.” I’m not. Yes, it is difficult, but it’s part of who I am. It’s an aspect of what makes me – well – me.

Why Good Fences Don’t Make Good Neighbors

I listen to music from my high school years on a regular basis. I’m hard of hearing, so it’s difficult for me to figure out the words to new songs, and who doesn’t like jamming and singing along with their music as they’re driving down the road? Plus, if the lyrics are good or brimming with truth, why not listen to that junk over and over? Which brings me to the other day when I was jamming to some old school Krystal Meyers and the lyrics stayed with me for a particularly long time. The song is called “Together” (2006) and goes like so:

We all long to belong
We all need to be needed
Loneliness is our disease
Still we bite the hand that feeds
Where did we go wrong?
Insecure and self-sufficient
Building up walls instead of bridges

Let our lonely hearts collide
We’re made to live this life
Together, together
Reach across this great divide
Cuz standing side by side is better
Together

All the pride we defend
Teaches us to pretend
Like we can make it on our own
But we were never made to walk alone

Let the lines between us disappear
It starts now it starts here

It’s about living life together, right? God didn’t make us to walk alone. That’s why he gave us our families, our friends, our community.

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Taken in Panama City Beach, Florida

I had a ton of those surface-level friendships growing up. I didn’t know what they were at the time, but in middle school and high school, you become friends with someone because you both like the same band, or in my case, you both liked doing theatre. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but my friendships didn’t really go beyond that much. I could probably tell you a lot of facts about all the people I called my best friends (which was basically anyone who spent an extended amount of time with me), but did I really know them? Probably not – most of them at least. Knowing facts about someone and knowing them are different things. The second requires them opening their life to you and you doing the same. Why would you want to do that when we can get what we need from socialization with the surface-level friendship? But that kind of life is lonely. The song talks about belonging and being needed. You don’t get that kind of outcome from a relationship that stays above the surface. I was blind to this. I was temporarily satisfied by the surface, but then I went to college and whoa. My eyes were opened—by people who were bad at the friend thing and people who were good at it. I realized that I was running low on the small talk meter and I was thirsty for something more meaningful in my relationships.

“Loneliness is our disease / Still we bite the hand that feeds / Where did we go wrong?” What causes us to fight against the very thing that will help our loneliness? Self-sufficiency and pride are probably the two most common things. We hate showing any sign of weakness by asking for help or opening up our lives. Krystal Meyers talks more about this in the second verse: “All the pride we defend / Teaches us to pretend / Like we can make it on our own.” Our pride is dumb. Dude, when has it ever helped anything? It’s a flat out sin and it’s making us think wrongly about how we are supposed to do life! We can’t make it on our own. That’s why God had to send His son to die for us, because our attempts at making it on our own are just hurting others and ourselves: it’s pushing us deeper into the clutches of sin and calling us to be in denial about how limited and small we are. Jesus came to take away that power of sin, stop going back to it. He’s offering a more joyful, satisfying way of life, and one way He chooses to do this is through community.

At the end of the first verse, Meyers says that we are “building up walls instead of bridges.” It’s a protection thing. We got hurt by something or are afraid of being hurt by something and we build up those walls. I used to have a wall I built up around my heart that made me afraid to say, “I love you.” I felt like I had said it when I didn’t mean it and because of that, I felt like I didn’t know what it meant. The thing about walls is that they keep the bad stuff out, or at least they try to, but they don’t let people see you. I wasn’t able to show my heart for a while until God started knocking that wall down. We’re not called to have a wall separating ourselves, we’re called into love: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15). It’s not going to be easy, of course. People won’t respond the same way you are trying to. Some people have their own walls or will try to attack your lack of one, but that person has their own struggles and the way they respond shouldn’t give you cause to treat them poorly. I love quotes, and this one sticks out to me when thinking about loving people: “Just remember that sometimes the way you think about a person isn’t the way they actually are” (Paper Towns, John Green). That’s why surface-level friendships don’t work when you are living in community and loving each other. Some people don’t want to open up their lives to you because of their protective walls, but I think the more we love them and open up our lives to them, the better we are able to show how to live in a community.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about the walls we build called “Mending Wall” (1914). The narrator and his neighbor have to mend the stone wall between their property once a year because of the wear and tear, or he jokes that it could be elves. The narrator keeps asking his neighbor why they have to have a wall to divide them and the neighbor always replies: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The whole poem is about the narrator’s internal struggle with this. He says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” because it seems to fall down every year, due to the changing weather or perhaps the hunters. Yet he looks forward to this event every year because that means that he finally gets to interact with his neighbor, whom he only sees during this event. The narrator’s longing to know his neighbor is normal.

We’re all sinners. Life is messy and sometimes we don’t want to share the mess with others or step into their messes, but God calls us to community. Sometimes I want to be selfish and only relate with people I think are cool, but that’s not what God calls me to. He calls me to community. He calls me to real life lived with others, without all the makeup covering our less lovely spots, because how are we supposed to encourage each other and build each other up if we only know the facts about people, not their life? Hebrews 10:24-25 shows us what community looks like: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” There is joy and encouragement in community!

One thing that I struggled with in the beginning of my college years is feeling like it was unfair. I felt like I didn’t have any friends trying to know me on a deeper level or invest in me, so why should I do that for others? That’s selfishness. T.M. Moore says, “To love with the love of Jesus is to seek others, and not simply to wait around for them to find their way to us” (2016, “The Disciplined Life: Getting in shape to seek the Kingdom of God”). Jesus didn’t wait until He felt like He fit in before He reached out to others. He was mocked. He was despised. Isaiah 53:3 says, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hid their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.” Did that stop Him from loving people? Heck no, techno! He sought to know people and love people to the point that He died for their salvation. You may ask how you’re supposed to be a friend and reach out to people when you don’t have an example of someone doing it to you. You do. That’s one of the reasons Jesus came: to be that example for you. He even encourages us by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). He can use you in areas you feel the weakest. After all, Moses told God “I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). But did that stop God from using Him? You guessed it.

There’s a verse that I read the other day that I want to share in closing. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 and 12 say, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! …And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The writer of Ecclesiastes talks throughout the whole book about how our actions are vanity, futile, like striving after the wind. They’ll never reap the reward we desire, which is why we must fear the Lord and strive to live in community. These are things that will bring blessing and satisfaction. So, kick down those walls, stuff your pride, and follow Jesus’ example in loving people.