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The Erosion of Listening: A Contemporary Crisis of Childhood

The Erosion of Listening: A Contemporary Crisis of Childhood

The Erosion of Listening: A Contemporary Crisis of Childhood

“Can you tell me again what we are supposed to do, Mrs. Johns?”  I looked at the pale second grader with a mixture of exasperation and curiosity.  How could she possibly have failed to hear the simple instructions I had just given to the class?  She was actually looking directly at me the whole time I was speaking, which had been for less than 30 seconds.   Withholding judgment, I leaned over to her and asked gently if she hadn’t heard what I had just said.   Now it was her turn to be exasperated.  “Yes, Mrs. Johns, of course I heard what you said, I just wasn’t listening to it!”

Our sense of hearing is one that is fairly well understood.  Along with what our eyes perceive through our sense of sight, what our ears hear through our sense of hearing allows us to orient ourselves in space.  Ambient sound helps us to make sense of our environment.  We do hearing tests to make sure that children’s auditory perceptions are in order, and we caution our young people against excessive use of ear phones with volume turned up because of concern about damage to their organs of hearing.  Like sight, our ability to hear is based on the proper function of a physical mechanism, and when any aspect of that mechanism is faulty, our physical ability to hear is compromised.

Only there was nothing at all wrong with this second grader’s sense of hearing.  She confirmed that she had heard all that I said, so why had she not understood it?  In the more than 10 years that have passed since that instructive conversation, I have seen demonstrated again and again the profound difference between our physical sense of hearing and our soul sense of listening.

What does it mean to listen to something?   We speak of the ‘phenomenon of hearing’, but we speak of the ‘activity of listening’.  Our sense of hearing gives us the physical possibility to take what we have heard outwardly and do something with it inwardly.  Whether it is conscious or not, listening actually requires a decision to act.  Within the aural realm, when we meet something that comes to us from without, with intentional activity from within, the result is listening.   It is a meeting that takes place in our inner being, the result of soul activity that goes beyond our sense perception of hearing.  And it is only through such an inner meeting that understanding can actually take place.  The implications of this are profound, pointing as they do to listening as a soul capacity – a capacity that actually has nothing to do with our ears!  Seen in this way, it is possible to gain new therapeutic insight into a fundamental human capacity that seems to be diminishing in our population at large at an alarming rate.

The full range of causes and consequences of the apparent decline in modern human beings’ capacity to listen are too vast to be considered in this brief article, but it is possible to point to a few overarching themes and some possible ways of offering supportive remediation.

First, how can we more deeply understand the relationship of hearing to listening?  It certainly could be said that any imbalance in the sense of hearing creates a potential compromise in the capacity to listen.  But does this imply that better hearing means better listening? A growing number of children coming to us today suffer from hyper acuity in their sense of hearing, which actually challenges their ability to listen.  Why is that?  An infant, whose physical senses are wide open to the surrounding environment, has a need to monitor the multitude of sense impressions coming towards it.  In the visual realm, the infant does this by closing its eyes.  The amount of time an infant spends with its eyes closed is, in part, indicative of what percentage of visual impressions are indigestible to the infant.  The closing of the eyes is a protective measure that is self-regulating.  Regrettably, the human being does not possess a similar protective mechanism for the sense of hearing.  The infant, who Rudolf Steiner described as “one large sense organ” is left entirely at the mercy of its surrounding in the realm of sound, and infants who are exposed to the average quantity and quality of sounds in our modern environment with no built in mechanism to protect themselves may suffer effects on much deeper levels.  Such experience may, in fact, trigger a certain kind of inner shutting down, as the sound penetrates beyond the physical ears right into the core of its being.  Later on, we meet children who do not know how to properly ‘digest’ the sounding world around them.   This can lead to aural hyper acuity in some children who have not learned to modulate the sounding world and who experience the plethora of sounds around them as an assault.  In other children, it can lead to a listening faculty that has been largely shut down because of the repeated need for self-protection.  It is critical to educate parents about the importance of protecting the ears of the infant or young child from loud, excessive, or mechanical noise.

As with so many other developing faculties in young children, imbalances in the listening capacity require thoughtful therapeutic support from pedagogues and therapists as well.   First and foremost, it is our task to provide opportunities for children to exercise their listening capacity for its own sake, rather than as only a means to an end.   To start with, something as simple as creating a moment of silence in a room is a tremendous gift to modern children!  This can be done at the beginning of any class or therapy session.  I always invite a child or a class to close their eyes in order to enhance their sense of hearing in that blessed silence.  This is a tall order for many of our children who have become so overly dependent on their visual sense that they find it nearly impossible to keep their eyes closed!  Multiple repetitions of this basic activity may be required before children can allow themselves to live into this often foreign aural landscape!  Eventually, at the end of 20-30 seconds of such an exercise, the out breathing in the room becomes almost palpable.  Over time, children begin to crave these moments, and have often reminded me, if I forget to allow space for this activity.   I remember a sixth grader who commented to me that his favorite part of orchestra class was the moment of silence right before the playing began, reflecting that it always gave him “goose bumps”! Such experiences can indeed become “holy moments” for children.

Once children have learned how to be comfortable with silence, it is possible to take another step by asking them to “reach out” beyond the silence with their listening, to discover what they can hear.   This is not an easy exercise for some children.  We must recognize that the active gesture of listening is actually an opening out to the world.  It is a gesture of expansion, which is actually the polar opposite gesture to the “shutting down” that for too many children has become a habitual reflex of self-protection against the excessive noise in our environment.  It is important to have created a space where the children can feel safe to activate this inner faculty.  Many children have never consciously engaged this capacity, and when they have the courage to do so, one can almost imagine a tender blossom unfolding toward the sun.   Once engaged, it is remarkable how far a child’s listening can actually extend!

A third exercise could be described as “willing the listening to move in the space toward a certain sound.”  Here we can observe another important distinction of listening.  Our sense of hearing is indiscriminate.  We hear whatever is sounding in our immediate environment.  The activity of listening, on the other hand, requires discrimination.  Discrimination in listening gives meaning to what is heard, which leads to the possibility for understanding.  I may have the class sit quietly with their eyes closed and simply get used to hearing me speak without being able to see me.  (A few children are always amazed that they can still hear me, even though their eyes are closed!)  Then I silently move to another area of the room.   Out of the silence, I ask if they can still hear me and have them point to where in the room my voice is coming from.  After a few more moves, I end up squarely behind them.   I have now moved out of their visual space in front and have entered their actual listening space.  From here, I challenge them to remain facing forward with their eyes closed and reach behind them with their listening.  I then tell a little story – speaking, singing, or playing into that “back space” which has finally been activated.

This exercise can be expanded to involve children moving unseen to various parts of the room.  Whichever child I point to takes a turn making a small sound with an object or instrument, and the seated children must point in the direction of the sound or figure out who the “sound maker” was!   A more sophisticated exercise involves making several distinct repeated sounds with simple instruments and having children focus their listening on only one predetermined sound.  This requires a more advanced type of discrimination where the child must begin to separate essential from inessential.  This listening skill is at the heart of a child’s ability to succeed in classroom-based education.

Such an introductory article would not be complete without the mention of one of the most valuable listening tools that can be used with children or adults, and that is the tone of the lyre.  In my experience, the sounding of even a single lyre tone into a space awakens an immediate listening response.  It would be the subject of another article to explore the possibility of nourishing the sense of hearing and the capacity to listen through the pedagogical and therapeutic use of the lyre and other “new” instruments, which have been specifically designed to free the musical tone where it can be met through our listening into the surrounding space.

A few years ago, I had an experience that gave me a profound appreciation of the listening challenges our children face in today’s world.  A concerned 4th grade teacher spoke to me about a boy who seemed unable to sing with the rest of the class.  She hastened to explain that he had lost his mother to cancer just the previous summer.  In working with him, I was not surprised to find that his very low choice of pitch was deliberate-it was simply too painful for him to sing in the higher register where he used to sing with his mother.   Moved with compassion, I sensed that he was clearly an inwardly sensitive child by nature, and he responded immediately when I asked him to listen within, and then to sing whatever tone he heard inside, which I then matched with my voice and lyre. He loved this exercise of my confirmation of the tone that he had sounded, and over time I was able to coax the register up in increments until, gradually, feeling more confidence in himself, he was able to expand the range in which he was comfortable singing. It was truly a healing work for this child. One day, after several months of this, he gave me a remarkable insight: I had asked him, as usual, to quiet himself and to listen within, and then to hum whatever tone was sounding in him. He listened for longer than usual and then, furrowing his brow, informed me that he was having a hard time hearing his tone that day. Determined, he listened again. Suddenly, out of the silence, he opened his eyes wide and exclaimed, “I know what the problem is! I’ve been playing a lot with my new Nintendo, and every time I listen today, I’m hearing the sound of that Nintendo, which is covering up the sound of my own tone!”

To what extent the “sounding brass and clanging cymbals” of our contemporary acoustic environment threaten to separate our children from the sounding of their own tone or their own voice or their own thoughts and feelings, we can hardly guess.  Ultimately, the deed of active listening has the power to open that realm to them again, to confirm their connection to their intrinsic selves and ultimately to allow them to embrace the world around them from within.

In a series of lectures entitled The World as Product of the Working of Balance given in Dornach, Switzerland in November of 1914, Rudolf Steiner describes the 3 planes of the physical human body in space.  In addition to the right/left dimension and the up/down dimension, we live in the world in the front/back dimension. Our eyes, located at the forefront of our faces, orient the visual space in front of us and give us knowledge about the world through what we can see.  Our ears, on the other hand, located at the sides of our head, have the possibility to take in something of what lives in the unknown, unseen space behind us.  The unconscious gesture of leaning back and cupping the ear in order to hear something reflects the relationship of this so-called “back space” to our capacity to listen.

Sheila Phelps Johns has worked with the lyre in the early grades for 14 years at the Washington Waldorf School, where she is also a member of the Care Group.  She has completed anthroposophic trainings in both instrumental and singing therapy.  She works with music therapeutically at the school and through her private practice in Silver Spring, MD.

This article appeared in Soundings: A Lyre Review; Volume 3, No. 1; reprinted with permission from the Fall 2009 Newsletter of the Association for a Healing Education.

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