In his book, Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama writes about identity and finding his way as a young man who was half white and half black. I could never go as far as to say that I could remotely know what it is like to be biracial in America, but I do feel like there are some parallels to the experience of being not hearing, not Deaf. The experience of being in between, where one is not completely at home in either identity or culture.
Obama’s experience is grounded in appearance, and the assumptions, attitudes and expectations that are created because of how he looks. In that sense, my experience is more invisible. It is created in social spheres, and the invisible ways that hearing loss creates personal anxiety, isolation and disconnect which may typically get confused with my personality, if it is noticed at all. Both experiences, however, even with many different outer layers of experience, ultimately result in a grappling with self-expression and anger at being confined, unable to freely express or be one’s self.
Obama writes about getting a sense, just for a moment, of what it is like to be free of confinement while in a marketplace in Africa:
...all of this while a steady procession of black faces passed before your eyes, the round faces of babies and the chipped, worn faces of the old; beautiful faces that made me understand the transformation that Asante and other black Americans claimed to have undergone after their first visit to Africa. For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it’s supposed to grow.. You could see a man talking to himself as just plain crazy, or read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate. Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.
How tempting, I thought, to fly away with this moment intact. But of course that wasn’t possible… The moment slipped away. [pp 311]
I identified with his yearning to have and to keep that moment. In my situation, however, how would I find such a moment? I would have to study American Sign Language for several years to the point where I could freely use and comprehend without a second thought, then find a group of people who use sign language, then perhaps I will have that amazing moment where my energy is freed up for spontaneous self-expression and full involvement in all aspects of socializing.
I try to imagine a moment no longer invested in exerting the extra effort and energy to follow conversation threads, fill in gaps, and counter the anxiety often at the base of it all- the self-critical inner dialogue that tells me I must hear everything if I try as hard as I can, avoid awkward embarrassing moments as much as I can and I must find ways to join in based on the snippets of conversation that I may nor may not have obtained. When I don’t succeed the way I want to, all I can think is how boringquietuncomfortable and left out I was, once again stuck in an experience that was not me, but was terribly me all the same.
I know much of this is self-driven and based on a lifetime of painful experiences that self-perpetuate and automatically set me on a certain track of ingrained thoughts and feelings each time I encounter a new social situation. The more comfortable and open and forgiving I become with my hearing loss, the easier these situations will be.
In that moment meant for me though, I imagine I would be fundamentally relaxed, at a level taken for granted by the majority hearing population. I would be confident that I would understand everything everyone says at any point in time regardless of background noise or accents or facial hair or lighting or lips that barely move when one speaks. I would miss nothing. I would entertain, I would freely join in and reach out to others. My receptivity would induce others to reach out to me. Comfort level and confidence would be automatic, and I would be free.
But it would just be a moment.
Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Three Rivers Press; New York. 1995.
May 28th 2009Hearing loss