I was very disturbed to see yet another giant billboard polluting my vision last week, but this time with a very graphic picture of a face decorated with rivulets of blood. It was for a horror movie called “The Hills Have Eyes”. I have long lamented the change in traffic jam scenery from simply polluted to over-polluted, thanks to the proliferation of in-your-face billboards. But this one takes the cake. Is there no official body that monitors what goes out there? I can only imagine the nightmares this image is causing in households everywhere. I pray my car doesn’t stop anywhere near it while my kids are aboard. Calling responsible advertisers, please. Is anyone out there thinking?
Digesting giant ads screaming “BUY THIS, BUY THAT” (this in our poverty-stricken land) and seeing your un-favorite endorsers up close and personal are harsh enough, but having disturbing images thrust at you is pure violation of your right to peace. Being on the road is already stressful with the traffic, dirt, heat and general chaos, but this constant bombardment of the senses is downright unhealthy. I worry for the children who are unable to process images like this and simply take them in like a sponge. Now they’ve even added large screens that show moving advertisements. Friends have already reported close calls because the moving images get you before you realize it’s not a good idea to look while driving. These screens are illegal in other countries but here, it seems, anything goes.
I have the same problem with noise levels. Just the other day I shopped at True Value and nearly lost my hearing. The same goes for The North Face, also at the Shangri-La Plaza. Awful. You would think they were playing to a crowd of a million in a vast, open field. Sports stores are among the worst. SM department stores everywhere are terrible. Children’s stores are punishing, too. I count this as the worst crime because children’s senses are still so fragile. A few days ago, Dr. Tyrone Reyes wrote that deafness is on the rise. You only need to go to the mall, grocery store or over-the-top children’s party to figure it out.
Do people really think noisy music will get me to buy more? On the contrary, it makes me jumpy, gives me a headache and makes me want to leave quickly. If I’m in the hallway and already the music from adjacent stores are banging into my chest, I don’t even bother to check them out. Salespeople in these establishments hardly even look at you. They’re nodding their heads to the booming bass and are rarely pleasant or interested in your needs. Nobody seems to get that a more peaceful, pleasant environment leads to better service and a more enjoyable shopping experience. Loud music does nothing for sales. All it does is put everyone in the store on edge. Nothing gets sold when both salesperson and customer are out of sorts. I wish someone would conduct a study and prove me right. Loud music is an irritant. There’s enough stimulus out there. We don’t need more rammed down our already sore throats.
Think of the little child whose senses are just developing. Think of her being overwhelmed by the noise. Just look at a young child’s face in the mall. Watch it closely. Is she shutting down yet? How is this affecting her hearing and, later on, her sense of balance, health, and relationship to society? During a mall concert last year, I wanted to shake several parents who parked their babies in strollers near the loudspeakers. The babies were stunned out of their heads. They fussed but the parents just danced in front of them or rocked them back and forth, and sometimes carried them as they moved to the belligerent beat. The children were glassy-eyed and bewildered. I wanted to whisk them away to a quiet room with soft lights and nothing else, make them hear their mother’s relaxed breathing, the distant voices of their siblings elsewhere in the house, footsteps on a wooden floor, the laughter of their father nearby. Natural sounds open up the spaces of human feeling. From there we begin to sense joy, sadness, hope, anger—and be able to clearly tell one from the other in a safe and living way. Isn’t this what people ought to know? It would do us well to hold these life lessons dear.
Most parents won’t even connect sensory overload to their children’s crankiness, difficult behavior or hyperactivity. Of course the children act up! Their nerves are all in a jangle from too much to see and hear, too many chemicals in their artificially flavored food, too much of everything! This is why malling is not a family activity for me. The sound levels in stores are absolutely deafening. Out in the streets, the landscape gets uglier. Everywhere you look, you are being asked to buy something—a product, an image, a sense of self.
Something in us tends to shut down or withdraw when there is too much going on. It’s self-preservation to put a boundary of protection so that we become separate and comfortably folded into ourselves. We really begin to see the craziness as something cut off from us. In a sense, it’s the only way to stay sane. But it also has profound consequences. What kind of people do we become when we detach ourselves from our environment and where does it put us in relation to society? Are we part of it or separate from it? If we are part of it, how do we behave? Perhaps we become more involved in the world and become outwardly active in the changing of it. If we are separate from it, are we detached from the issues of the day? I think so. It’s not our world after all.
Noise and visual clutter aren’t just nuisances. They are real health and well-being issues. I am notorious for asking establishments to lower the volume, please, so I can string my thoughts together, pay attention to the friend who is having to shout her story, or my child whose teeny voice is desperately asking me something. I do this especially when I’m the only person in the joint and there’s music enough for a thousand more of us. What gives?
What gives is that we’re becoming numb and our senses dull. We need more and more to remind us we are alive. We are grasping at the external world to fill the growing void in our inner world. It’s a chicken and egg thing: the emptiness is making us want more, but the more that’s out there isn’t enough. We can’t figure out what “enough” is because we can’t hear, see or sense clearly. Our discomfort levels are unhealthy. This is why people nod when you give instructions and then turn around and do something utterly wild. The disconnect is becoming irreparable.
Living in Metro Manila has become one big sensory overload. We can barely feel where and who we are because all the noise and external intrusions are affecting the way we breathe and we don’t even realize it. It’s worth the effort to carve out a real space of peace wherever we can so we can come back to ourselves daily and fight tooth and nail to protect our children’s developing senses by keeping them away from the chaos. I dream of leaders who really care about the health and development of the Filipino people; leaders who don’t allow money to rule the land. I dream of businessmen who respect our intelligence, dignity and well-being. But until we can hear our own voices and sense who we are again, we simply won’t notice that the quality of life in our country has already been sold to the highest bidder.