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Heeding the Call

Losing my hearing to cancer, I open my life to heed a new calling.

Photo by Chris C. Lee.

by Julie Johnson
Livermore, CA

It’s true what they say about getting that kind of news—everything really does go silent. I mean, the doctor’s mouth kept right on moving, but I didn’t hear a word after “cancer.” 

Immediately after, I called a senior in faith, my voice shaking with fear. 

“Where’s your Gosho?” she asked. “There’s something I want you to read.” This was in 2008.

In 2016, I found myself in the doctor’s office, cancer-free this time, but struggling once again to understand the doctor’s words. I squinted at his lips, mouthing an explanation: “The chemo!” I sat back in my chair. I’d beaten the cancer in 2010, but apparently the chemo drugs had resulted in gradual damage to the fine structures of my inner ears. Now the hearing loss was severe and, according to the doctor, permanent and irreversible. 

Even with hearing aids, my hearing continued to decline, until understanding what others were saying was like listening to a radio tuned to the wrong frequency—static broken by a few clear words, but not enough to string together. In September 2019, I moved to Livermore for affordable housing and new work, something in-person so I could read the lips of my colleagues and clients. Of course, the pandemic was declared the following March, and with everyone’s mouths covered with masks, the simplest errand became a test of strength. At the grocers, a simple question could hold up the line at checkout, me asking, “What?” and the cashier red in the face hollering the location of toothpaste. I began to simply nod when someone spoke to me, excuse myself and go home. Even in crowds, I felt totally isolated. 

Mission—Julie Johnson gathers with members in her district, Livermore, Calif., September 2022.

Interactions with SGI members were tricky, too. By the end of 2020, I had taken on district leadership in Livermore. Knowing how crippling pandemic isolation could be, I began calling to check on members who had not come out to meetings in some time. I got ahold of one while she was driving. By the tone of her voice, I could tell she was distressed, but because of her car’s background noise, I couldn’t make out a word. 

“I’m so sorry, I can’t hear you, can we talk when you get home?”

“No!” And she hung up. All I’d done was frustrate her when she was already upset. I was devastated. How can I take care of people if I don’t know what they’re saying? How can I be a leader?  

I called my region leader. “You’ve got to find someone else,” I told her. 

“Chant with me,” she said. 

Back in 2008, on the phone with a senior in faith, she read me a passage from Nichiren Daishonin’s “Reply to Yasaburo.” 

“You must simply make up your mind,” he says. “The reason you have survived until now … was so that you would meet with this affair” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 827).

“Cancer can be cured,” she had said. “It’s your fear that will keep you from doing what you need to do to win.”

My grandson had just entered kindergarten. I wanted to see him grow up; I wanted to live the best life possible—a contributive life! Before the Gohonzon, I engraved this letter from Nichiren in my heart and made a promise to my mentor, Ikeda Sensei: I will live out my life fearlessly for kosen-rufu. 

Chanting now with my women’s region leader, this promise came back to me. Beside my altar, I have a portrait of my mentor, his hands upraised in a “V for victory.” “I will not be defeated!” I said aloud. On the hour, every hour, I’d say these words, beating back my fear. I would not let hearing loss control my life. I would find a way to use my hearing loss as a way to show the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and encourage others.

With this renewed resolve, I began searching in earnest for ways to improve my hearing and was referred to a group of doctors at Stanford Medical Center, one of the top five institutions for hearing restoration in the world. They deemed me a perfect candidate for a cochlear implant, a device that allows sounds to bypass the damaged structures of the ear. The surgery went over without a hitch, but my hearing was far from what it had once been. Grappling with the reality that current medical science would not restore my hearing to what it had been before, I had days where I didn’t want to get out of bed. But practice for others got me up. 

A young woman was testing out the practice. She called me and asked if we could chant together in the mornings, she at her house, me at mine. Though I couldn’t see how I’d break through in my own life, I was resolved that she would have a breakthrough in hers. Of course, practicing for others is actually the fastest way to opening up a new path for your own life. 

Photo by Chris C. Lee

For me, that path came in the form of an invitation to join an SGI-USA American Sign Language meeting. I don’t know sign language, but I found community and connection there. And hope. I felt this calling, felt strongly that my mission was with this community, and I resolved to take a sign language class. I also got more seriously involved in the Hearing Loss Association of America, studying how I could advocate for those with hearing loss. Recently, I was asked if I’d like to do this for work! 

After 45 years of Buddhist practice, if I know one thing, it’s this: It doesn’t matter if you don’t know which direction is forward. You don’t have to. All you’ve got to do is have the courage to sit down, earnestly chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and keep trying. Responding to my mentor, I’m turning karma into mission. My hearing loss is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. 

To practice Nichiren Buddhism is to live with the unshakeable conviction that … no matter how difficult the situation, we can ultimately and without fail transform it into something positive.

Ikeda Sensei  (August 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 58)

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