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Along the Journey  |  

Hearing Loss: Do we forget what we should remember?

What does it mean to attend to the sheer weight of accumulated loss each of us carries around the world today in 2023? 

I am the laundry person in my family and actually enjoy it.  Every week I carry laundry baskets from washer to dryer to drawers in a repeated chore that I like to think of as a family care ritual.  But there is one laundry basket that I haven’t moved much in the past three years.

Stored in a closet sits a laundry basket full of a coiled long paper chain of different color construction paper now starting to fade.  Every few months, someone in our family suggests that it is time to recycle the paper chain, but then someone else objects and that someone else is usually me. 

This now-fading paper chain helps us remember the day-to-day life of Spring 2020.  It wasn’t really that long ago but also it feels so far away. New studies have recently shown that many people are already forgetting the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, its ongoing reverberations, and its many losses. 

How possible is it to listen well when we don’t even want to – or can’t – remember our own accumulated losses?  Do our fading memories of loss also fade the possibilities of listening to another’s experience of loss?  When I think about listening, I mean not the biology of the ear, but rather possibilities for and our needs for connecting to the rhythms of life’s losses that reverberate in our storied bones.

In “The Science of Forgetting,” Washington Post reporter Richard Sima writes that while “the pandemic would seem unforgettable…many people don’t want to hold onto their covid memories.”[1]  In addition to challenges of information overload, stress, monotony, and new memories happening each and every day, the pandemic is and will be difficult to remember because of the moral wrestling needed to keep remembering it.  Sima asks, “will covid be part of your life story?” 

I was struck by this story and research on COVID and memory that it prompted me to engage (just google COVID and memory!), because my pandemic experience has included researching what makes listening difficult and what could make listening better, more accessible, more possible, especially across all kinds of differences and within generations of communities.

The kind of listening I have been researching is embodied beyond any one sense or person, by rhythms of shared life and love in intercultural communities.  What does it mean to listen as a neighborhood, as a church, as a family, as a country, as a generation in a long story of generations, as a human being among other species?  I have a sense that hearing loss – really receiving and attending to both griefs close at hand and losses experienced by other peoples and creatures – is an important part of listening that heals.  

Before this pandemic, I was already intrigued by my mentor Emma Justes’s admonition that “the problem with listening is that it is so easy not to do.[2]  I had already written about the “strategic forgetting” that makes empathy less likely, especially when thinking about the collective human solidarity needed for healing and transforming a wounded and wounding world.[3]  How much more difficult is it to listen about someone else’s losses when we are in the middle of our own griefs and yet-to-griefs?

In the early days of the pandemic, like many other families, my family of four was relegated to makeshift spaces around the house while we attended or taught in four different schools at the same time.  Our bandwidth was literally and figuratively stretched thin.  We searched for practices of connection in the midst of it all – habits that might help us mark the strange and frightening time. We cut different colors of construction paper into one-inch strips and set them on the table with some markers.  Every day each person took one piece of paper, wrote or drew something on it, and stapled it to the chain which grew by four links every day. 

After just a few weeks, the chain wrapped around more than one room of the house, growing every day and surrounding us by a visual family journal, both amusing and confusing, at once absurd and lighthearted.  We were running out of staples.  What exactly was happening? 

This paper rainbow connected us to each other while reminding us of profound disconnection we were each experiencing in our own ways.  I can’t remember the day, but I do remember a moment when we decided to take it down. 

We chose not to throw it away, though it has already moved from room to room, closet to closet – here, but out of the way.  I am glad that we keep deciding to keep it.  It may seem simple, but  I want to hold on to the paper chain to help remember, to guard against the probability and temptation of forgetting to listen to loss. 

Who helps you remember when you might rather just forget?  What practices help you to keep hearing losses and griefs? 

[1] Sima, Richard. 2023. “Science of Forgetting: Why We’re Already Losing Our Pandemic Memories.” The Washington Post, March 13, 2023.

[2] Justes, Emma. 2006. Hearing Beyond the Words. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, xi.

[3] Sharp, Melinda A. McGarrah. 2019. Creating Resistances: Pastoral Care in a Postcolonial World. Leiden: Brill.

By: Mindy McGarrah Sharp, PhD

Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care

Columbia Theological Seminary

Along the Journey