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At First Sight

At First Sight

What would it be like to be blind all your life, and then be able to see?

by

What would it be like to be blind all your life, and then be able to see? A wonderful blessing, no doubt, for which anyone would be grateful.

Medical history provides us with numerous such cases. The classic work on the subject is Marius van Senden's Sight and Space, published in 1932, after surgical procedures for removing cataracts were made available, and some people who had been blind from birth were among its first beneficiaries.

One woman was surprised to discover that "men do not look like trees at all."

The results were, however, surprising -- and perplexing. Many of the formerly blind, although they could now see normally, could not assimilate at once the new visual data of color, depth, height and distance. They were born-again visual illiterates, having to learn the meaning of what they were seeing. It was like learning a new language, and matching the colors with their names was the least of it. Visual messages that we take for granted were for them like a code that had to be broken. They had, for example, to learn that the "dark marks" on objects were shadings, the natural indicators of depth that we take so much for granted.

There were also some odd misconceptions. One woman was surprised to discover that "men do not look like trees at all."

The experience of seeing faces was particularly revealing. Eye-to-eye for the first time, some did not realize that they were indeed looking at a face. Until its lips moved and a voice issued forth, they simply did not know what it was.

And as one of the formerly blind was to discover, the faces of each of her visitors "was utterly different." The sense of touch, no matter how acute and reliable for identifying others, did not prepare her for the sight of human individuality. Seeing that no two people are alike was a revelation.

Which raises the question, why are they so different?

The Reasons for Visual Diversity

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) gives a practical reason -- to avert quarreling: "And for what reason are people's faces not similar one to the other? So that a man should not see a beautiful house, a beautiful woman, and say, 'She is mine.'" The Sages regarded sight as a natural fence around the institutions of monogamy and personal property.

The unflagging uniqueness of human physiognomy, the infinite variety of the visible, is also a sign of the greatness of the Creator. He never runs out of ideas. And the ideas are for our benefit: Different faces so that we should not fight over the people we love or the property we own. Different colors and flavors of food, so that we should not have to sustain ourselves on a single taste or color. Everything in the physical world could have been as colorless and tasteless as water, and the sky an unremitting gray. But that is not the kind of world God had in mind for us.*

The Talmud notes another, equally important, dimension to human diversity: "Just as the faces of people are unalike, so are their minds unalike" (Brachot 58a). Rabbi Eliezer E. Dessler explains that this refers not only to their opinions or attitudes, but the individuation of their personalities as a whole and their tasks in life as well. No human being is superfluous; "every man has his hour" say the Sages. The uniqueness of a face bespeaks the uniqueness of its owner. **

The Talmud relates that "when ben Zoma saw a multitude of Jews (600,000) on an elevation on the Temple Mount, he declared, 'Blessed are You, O Lord our God who knows the secrets.' " (Brachoti 58a)

What did the great sage ben Zoma mean by that? In Ethics from Sinai, Irving Bunim explains: "To our sages, a multitude is not a mass of undifferentiated humanity, but a group of many individuals, each his own world, with his own perceptions, thoughts, his own "secrets."

"When you are looking at 10,000 people, you are looking at 10,000 secrets hidden in 10,000 minds...This is the essence, the core of human freedom -- that people's minds cannot be known, and therefore cannot be tyrannically regimented or controlled. The Supreme Intelligence that brought this world into being, saw fit to make people this way: no two quite alike, either in appearance or thought. And He alone, no other, knows the secrets, the private views and reflections, musings and notions, that fill human minds."

The Challenge of Seeing

In the medical annals, perhaps the most astonishing result was that not all of the previously blind were happy with their newly acquired faculty. They did not all jump up with hands outstretched, shouting joyfully, "I'm healed!" and throw away their canes forever, like in the old-time religion. On the contrary, many found their first exposure to the often harsh and inscrutable world of sight to be rather traumatizing.

In An Anthropologist On Mars, best-selling neurologist Dr. Oliver Sachs reports of one patient: "He...found some things he loved ugly (including his wife and himself!) and he was frequently upset by the imperfections and blemishes of the physical world."

Van Senden describes how a particularly anguished patient threatened, "If it doesn't change, I'll tear my eyes out!" Indeed, almost every one of the newly sighted suffered a "motivation crisis," and not every one got through it.

For most people blindness is a condition to be dreaded, and we would expect that anyone saved from it would joyfully welcome their release from that darkness.

Yet, amazingly, it was not so. Some even persisted in going about willfully with eyes closed, feeling their way around as if they were still blind, in a self-imposed darkness. It seems that the constant strain of having to interpret the unaccustomed and confusing apparitions that now crowded their field of vision was more than we can imagine.

Many of us go about in a self-imposed obscurity, refusing to open our eyes.

But there were happy endings, too. One of those who initially resisted sight and kept her eyes closed for two weeks, finally began to examine her newly visible surroundings. She soon yielded to rapturous exclamation, repeating over and over: "Oh God! How beautiful!"

To some degree, many of us go about in a self-imposed obscurity, refusing to open our eyes and see a God-created world, full of unfailing inventiveness and love. Instead, we are "frequently upset by the imperfections and blemishes" that we perceive.

Even the most benign light can be frightening to an eye accustomed to darkness. It takes courage to open one's eyes. We are afraid, lest we be overwhelmed by an unintelligible reality. Lest we find ourselves unable to cope, we keep our eyes closed, even to the good things.

The Psalmist calls out to us, "O taste and see the Lord is good!" Just as we understand that we must open our mouths to enjoy the taste of foods, so the enjoyment of the world in general requires that we open our eyes, that we broaden our perceptions. We may find that we inhabit a world that consists not only of darkness and evil, but also of light and good.


* In An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sachs writes about an accomplished painter who became totally color blind due to an auto accident. Although he gradually adjusted, the world of gray bananas and black sunsets was at first an unrelieved horror of sensory deprivation.

** It also teaches that just as you should not hate anyone for the way they look, something they were merely born with, so too should you not hate them for disagreeing with you, since people are also born with different ways of looking at the world.

Sources: Annie Dillard's essay, "Seeing," in Phillip Lopate's anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, Pp. 700-703; Rabbi E.E. Dessler, Michtav MiEliyahu; Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 2, Pp. 4-5; Oliver Sachs, An Anthropologist on Mars, Pp. 3-42, 108-153.

Published: May 3, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Wesley D. Penner, May 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Inspiring metaphor

Sir,

Thank you for the inspiring metaphor. My wife and I face a difficult cross-cultural move later on in the year. We must learn to see new cultural norms as somehow normal and even normative. It's good to be reminded that the process of learning to see is not always joyous, but is achievable.

(1) Sarah, May 4, 2003 12:00 AM

Thank you so much for this insightful and educational article. I had no idea that people who were blind actually regretted their returned eyesight. It seems almost impossible! Yet, we all know people who insist on remaining 'blind', who see the world as black because they are too afraid to open their eyes and look at the world. Let us hope that these people will have the courage to open their eyes and see the beauty of the world! Again, thank you for the inspiration.

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