Terri is about my age. She doesn't have a lot of money. She doesn't own a car. She lives in a small apartment in an obscure city in the mid-west. By society's standards, she is nothing. By my standards, she is nothing if not an amazing person. She has a big brain and she never hems herself in by having less than an open mind. She’s made her share of mistakes, but the world would be a better place with more people who had her robust intellect.
I met her last year in that deep sea of online fishers called the internet. We share no romantic chemistry. She is just a friend, albeit one of my true friends. One is doing well to have five good friends in life. She is one of those. We've never met in person. I’ve seen her, but she's never seen me. That's because Terri is blind. She was blind from birth. Her eyes never formed correctly in the womb. She was born without retinas and other essential components that make eyes work.
Never having known the ability to see is, to me, a huge thing to take in. That means she has never seen a sunset or the stars or a peculiar cloud formation. The things the bulk of us take for granted, the things we have forgotten to be amazed by, are the things she will never get to experience.
The conversations Terri and I have can be interesting, but very often, would be boring to the point of tears for anyone to listen to. We have covered nearly every subject you can name. No topic is too personal or private. We can fill up four hours of talk until we drop into an unintended slumber. While much of what we talk about wouldn’t interest anyone, some of it would. Take, for instance, my trying to explain to Terri what it is like to see.
I have tried to describe to Terri colors and shapes and what things “look like.” I have tried and tried and failed every single time. Only recently have I admitted that describing to a person who has never had sight details of what it means to “see” is an absolute impossibility. No, Terri doesn’t “see black” like people always ask. “Seeing” is a meaningless term to her.
It's funny…really it is. For all of her intellectual fortitude (she has a registered I.Q. of 143 as opposed to my 134), Terri will never understand how people see through glass. It really is a big mystery to her. And she doesn’t understand when I say that things looked at up close appear smaller as distance increases. She will never understand it.
Terri may not be able to see, but she takes in the information of what is around her that she needs. She shared with me a story about how she first began to be aware of her ability to sense what is around her. She was just eight years old and walking around the block with her father the way they always would. Terri would walk next to dad and hold his hand. On one occasion, they walked some ways and then Terri felt the need to walk in front of her father. “There is something here,” Terri said. Her father said: “Yes, there sure is.” “What is it?” Terri said. “A mailbox.” her father replied. But that mailbox was probably 25 feet away, and yet she knew she was going to need to move to dodge it.
One of the things people say about being blind is that your other senses are raised to mega-high levels, and there is a little truth to that. But it's not so much true as is the fact that you learn to rely on your other senses more. And there is one particular sense that develops that is the biggest help. It is sonar. Just like bats, blind people acquire the ability to use a very low-level sonar, which is how they can tell when they are next to a wall or piece of furniture or out in an open space. To them, the information translates from subtle sounds as a slight airy feeling on the face or cheeks, which gives an idea of distances and surroundings.
Terri types through a program called JAWS. It enables her to hear messages that the rest of us see on any computer screen. I have listened to this electronic speaking voice, which she has set to speak at the fastest possible level. I can't make out a single word, and here she is reading entire novels in the space of four to six hours! That girl’s got an amazing auditory processor!
Maybe Terri is a sharp cat, but sight is still better, yes? I asked her one day: “If you could have sight right now, would you not take it?” I almost felt bad about asking since the answer is so “obvious,” right? “Oh no!” she said, so emphatically with that windy-sounding voice of hers. I couldn't believe it, and in the course of our discussing the matter, she nailed me to the wall. She pointed out that sight would change her world forever, and there could be no going back. We argued, but she ended up convincing me.
Terri’s taking on the ability to see visible light was analogous to Joe Holman taking on the ability to see in infrared or in x-ray vision or perhaps the ability to see germs and things on the microscopic level. Nature dictates that abilities connected to the senses cannot be turned off and on at will. If you had super hearing, you would have to live out in a field somewhere because every TV and radio playing in a city or apartment building would drive you insane in a week’s time! My having the ability to see in x-ray vision, for instance, would mean that I could never turn that off. Imagine seeing skeletons instead of people’s faces! Muhahahaha!
That means my world would never look the same again, and nothing in the world would look the same—not a pair of naked breasts or the most benign patch of skin on an elbow. Nothing would be the same. It would be a different world…
So yes, Joe, it would be very nice to be able to drive myself to get groceries and shop, but this is my life. I don't want to know any differently. This is how it has always been for me.
What faulty assumption did I make? It was my own (human) arrogance that set me up for the fall. I simply assumed that the way I perceive life was the best way to perceive it. I assumed that because I know the beauty of a sunset that I somehow got the best seat in the house for observing the universe. This brings us to a powerful observation: if we had evolved to see things in infrared light or if we had developed x-ray vision, we would be parading around about how wonderful our observations are just as when we see them in the visible spectrum and marvel at “the glories of nature.”
This is the arrogance of consciousness. We and any other life-forms out there that can think would, of necessity, fall prey to this same ignorance: “You should see what I see! I got it good! This is the way it should be!”
I can make fun of it, but it sounds so convincing to remind myself of what I love about perceiving life. Do you want to experience life as a dog that sees everything in the color of a late summer evening or as a spider that cannot take in the whole sky and views things in ultraviolet light? I‘d say no, and I suspect, if you could ask the spider, the thing would not be looking forward to viewing things like I do.
We arrogant humans can go to bats or people in Terri’s position and say, “You will never know the beauty of a sunset!” Or, we could go to a deaf person and sign to them: “If only you could hear Bach and the sounds of a symphony!” But we might just as well run to a cockroach and say: “You are so damn disgusting and small and are missing out on what it means to be at the top of the food chain! Hah!” A smart cockroach would reply: “And you don’t know what it’s like to be able to survive a nuclear blast, so fuck off!”
Here is this blind woman, this friend of mine, a woman who has lived an immensely difficult life in so many ways. She was supposed to die at birth, but medical technology kept her alive. She had every reason to be dissatisfied with her life, to hate her existence and to finish herself off by doing something like mixing a bucket of ammonia and bleach.
But Terri doesn’t hate life. She loves it. She wants to grow old and die of old age with someone special. She has not a religious bone in her body, but she has hope. She is a survivor who awakes to each new day and finds meaning and purpose. That almost makes me angry. How envious I am!
Here I am, with all the faculties, and I’m half suicidal. I wanted her to see things my way. At first, I felt sorry for her. I kept wanting her to do what I would do and give up. But she didn’t. “If only you could see you as I see you!” I kept thinking. Then I got to know her, and I quit saying that. It’s in her nature to find the good in things. I don’t feel sorry for her anymore. I almost want to feel sorry for myself. If I lost sight, I wouldn’t be that strong.
I have known sight. To know sight and to lose it is different than never knowing it to begin with. Take the most beautiful pair of twins in the world who are the pride and joy of their father and mother and cut them up with a filet knife. Many parents could right nearly die from the grief. But go back in time and get rid of the children by not allowing them to be conceived and those same parents will never shed a tear for them.
It’s universal arrogance. We think we have the best seat in the house to live lives envied by all. Even the Bible says we are the highest creation. Is this a religious thing? Isn’t it faith that helps us overcome the trials and tribulations of life? Isn’t it getting on our knees and having a little talk with Jesus that makes things right? Not at all.
And here you were thinking I was going to tell you how evil the world is and how a good God couldn’t have created it. Or maybe you thought I was going to blame the arrogance of humanity on Christianity. You got me all wrong. I’m not blaming the Christian God. No deity did anything…as usual.
When we pull through tragedy and pain, we do so of our own strength. Sometimes that strength is not enough, in which case, we don’t make it. But other times, it is enough, and when we pull through, we assign reasons for it. Sometimes “finding Christ” is one of those reasons. That’s when things get dishonest.
Your genes tell you to survive, pal. All other voices are superfluous. You think by following the course of nature and then boasting about how triumphant God has made you gives brownie points? Might as well bestow sainthood on every Border Collie for having the “strength” to get his freak on with a neighborhood bitch in heat!
Sorry. Ole’ Jeebuz didn’t do a flippin’ thing, just as he never does. We don’t have the best seat in the house. Our seats are just warm and we prefer not to move.