With chaos engulfing me, I glide through the airport terminal in my own blissful little world. My earbuds firmly in noise cancellation mode, all I hear are the glorious chords of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

That’s how I fly these days, from departure to destination, floating above it all on a cushion of sound. Actually, it’s basically how I live my entire life. And so, it appears, do most other folks on this planet. 

Look around you, wherever you are. I predict that 74.79% of everyone in your field of view will have something in or over their ears. Collectively, we appear to have embraced 24/7 audio stimuli as a fortress against all inconvenient or unpleasant external sounds. Against life, in other words.

What used to be an occasional quest for harmless distraction seems to have turned into something increasingly more societally unhealthy — even inhuman. I say this as I notice my own habits changing, and not for the better. 

My apartment is just three floors above our community pool, so for hours I rely on modern ear technology to shut out the endless maniacal cries of “Marco! Polo!”

When night falls and the hordes of little water hellions are finally gone, it’s time to neutralize all worried and stressful thoughts in the battle for sleep. Once again, it’s AirPods to the rescue, with an endless playlist of podcasts, meditations and soothing soundscapes. 

I wear them while journaling in the morning, prepping for work or even sometimes while driving. Once at my desk, I slip them in at any opportunity, making me plausibly oblivious to my colleagues until they’re ready to rip them from my ears and grind them under their heels. 

At this point it’s clearly an addiction. But I’m convinced that if every person could take a frontline shift in a long-term care facility, we’d each be able to kick the habit, no 12 steps required. Inside those doors, it’s rare to spot an earbud. Nursing home staff quickly learn to tune in, not tune out. To stay engaged and alert. To see sound as a vital tool of connection, not disengagement. 

In a world on an endless quest for distraction and denial, the best of this profession offer a model for how to actually participate in life. It’s a path to fully embracing all the heartache and joy our collective human existence represents, and meeting it not only with open arms and eyes, but open ears.