I think of these times as living in the dark. I’m waiting for the light to return but when it does, uncertain as to just what I’ll see.
The thought of what this new light will reveal may have been prompted by a recent visit to my eye doctor. My left eye was driving me crazy; scratchy and irritated all the time. Three rogue hairs had grown under my eye lid. The doctor plucked out all three …by the roots. My eyelid was pulled back with each extraction, then released, popping back to my eye, like paddleball.
Some years ago, I had cataracts removed from both eyes. It was life changing, the way I’ve heard people talk about being born-again or seeing the light. Indeed, the scales fell from my eyes and the maddening haze plaguing my vision dissipated like sun evaporates morning mist. Vibrant colors returned, enriching my world. Visual acuity was razor-sharp. I now drive at night without terrifying my wife.
Gordon “Mouse” Cleaver flew for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. In August 1940 his plane was hit, shattering the canopy leaving acrylic shards lodged in his eyes. His right eye, too damaged, lost its sight. His left eye was treated by Dr. Harold Ridley. Ridley discovered that Cleaver’s eyes had never rejected the plastic splints. His eyes incorporated them. Ridley conceived of how plastic implants might serve to replace an eye’s compromised lenses. Modern cataract surgery began with his discovery. I am one among thousands to benefit from his pioneer work. Speaking of being blind: at that time, the medical community dismissed Ridley’s theory. Whatever we’re first inclined to reject as foreign or even dangerous, when viewed in a different light, actually clarifies and broadens our vision.
Seeing, however, involves more than just light. The famous Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges was blind, but claimed he could still see light. He couldn’t make anything out of it. In order to see objects, perceiving them depends on both light and shadow to define them. It’s similar to the way we have of seeing others or seeing ourselves. To assume that we are either all one or the other is itself a form of blindness and does not accurately depict who we truly are.
In Annie Dillard’s memorable essay called “Seeing,” she reflects on the phenomenon of sight, including the complex journey the sightless travel when transitioning to sight. Modern ocular surgery has restored the blessings of sight to those once consigned to blindness. However, not all who can, necessarily go “gently into that good light.” Describing an instance of a girl, blind since birth, whose sight had been successfully restored, Dillard writes: “…she is never happier or more at ease, than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” Her long habit of blindness indisposed her to seeing, an apparently not uncommon reaction of those whose surgeries have been successful. It’s no easy thing leaving a familiar world and going into one where all the rules are different.
The challenge for the person who transitions from blindness to sight is having no concept of space, form, distance, and size. These phenomena are meaningless to the sightless. “For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.” I understand this. Beginning as a septuagenarian and finally abandoning the effort as an octogenarian, I tried learning French and Spanish. The strange words evoked odd sensations, but I could not seem to catch on to their meaning, to feel familiar with them. After a while I simply closed my eyes to the whole thing and took refuge in what I knew best, English.
What was it like for Adam when he named the animals? The myth suggests that Adam had first dibs on assigning their names and so did not attribute to what he saw more than met his eye. He made no judgements. Pure impression unencumbered by meaning, so to speak. A skunk was just a skunk.
I often think how suffocating and limiting words can become when we associate them with particulars. Black, brown and red are simply colors, manifestations of energy vibrations. We attribute colors to certain peoples. We all know where that goes. When it does, it invariably winds up becoming much more than just delineating a color. With words, we assign meanings to colors that don’t properly belong to them. We skew perception and create alternative facts which become, in the last analysis, fake ones.
I noted with interest that it’s common for those transitioning from blindness to sight, how colors are significant in the experience, just colors, not colors as defining any natural objects. Again, there’s a purity in what they first see because a color or shadow ‘just is,’ and it’s not associated with or serving to define something else. One of the experiences the sightless who newly gain their sight share with small children, is seeing something for the very first time. For children, unfortunately, this is a small window. Experience soon jades this experience. The first time is often the last time we will see things as they are, innocently.
The Huichi Indians of Mexico created what they called “Ojo de Dios, or” God’s eyes. These sacramental objects were presented to small children as gifts. The eye represented the sun and stood for the power of seeing and understanding the things we cannot normally see. Children see things adults can’t.
Light was the first order of creation. Light has a way of being everywhere, so pervasive that, if there’s none around, there are creatures that make their own. Some, those creepy looking, gelatinous bodies of the lightless deep, generate their own light. They shine it to foil predators, lure prey or get mates. They swim in the light that they have, while multitasking.
The great saints of history have been described as those through whom light shines. Like Mother Theresa or Gandhi; they don’t dazzle us with glitz and glitter, but glow softly, just enough to show us the way when it’s dark. They are always a sight for sore eyes.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.