Perfect Vision

During my senior year of high school, a newspaper reporter interviewed me for an article on the organization that had awarded me a generous scholarship. Because the organization regularly offers scholarships and other attentions to blind and visually-impaired people, the article focused heavily on my vision and how I use it. At some point in the interview, the reporter asked me, “So if you could see anything more clearly, what would it be?” I thought for a minute, before responding, “Well…nothing I guess. I mean, the important things aren’t blurry. I can read print and do almost everything I need to do.”

A few weeks later when the article appeared in the Sunday paper, the final sentence read like this:

          “When asked what she wishes she could see more clearly, Emily responded, “The important things aren’t blurry.”

Ending the article on this note left readers to speculate about the kind of wisdom that my sight impairment had undoubtedly created. After its publication, people approached my parents, wiping tears from their eyes and saying, “Oh! She’s so wise! The important things aren’t blurry! Like love and friendship! And peace and togetherness!”

I could kick myself for not wracking my brain harder at the time. If I had thought of it, I would’ve told the reporter, “It would be nice if I could see well enough to pluck my own eyebrows.”

Some years later, my mom and I were shopping at the Town Center when a man approached and asked her if he could pray over me. Thinking that it never hurts to get a little extra heavenly intervention, she acquiesced. I remained silent because this had never happened to me before. However, as soon as the prayer started, I realized that, without consulting me, this man had decided to pray that my vision would be “healed.” Feeling unsure and unworthy, I couldn’t seem to articulate my thoughts. When the prayer was done, he looked at me and said, “Anything yet?” (Translation: Any Improvement?)

If I had been more with it at the time, I would’ve said to him, “Sure you can pray over me, and while you’re at it, ask God if he could send me a boyfriend. There’s a swing dance party coming up and I really need a date.”

Alas, this cognitive clarity never comes to me when I need it.

The question that follows me around, the one that tags insistently after most people born with low vision or no vision, is this: If you could have perfect vision, what would you want to see? The question that pursues people who have lost their vision later in life is this: If you could see anything again, what would it be?

Our answers to these inquiries are supposed to contain things like rainbows, sunsets, snow-capped mountains, and the faces of our loved ones. These questions, and the answers that are expected by those who ask them, imply that the most perfect understanding of our world is a visual understanding. Since we have limited or no vision, we are supposed to feel that our other sensory perceptions aren’t as valid as vision. It doesn’t matter that we can describe the voices of our loved ones in great detail; we must long to see their faces.

I’m going to appear to go off topic here and insert that I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate. If it tastes faintly like dirt, is really bitter, and has the phrase “90% cacao” somewhere on the label, you can’t keep me away!

When people try to imagine living with vision loss, I think they imagine it as the life of a chocolate-obsessed person who suddenly develops a chocolate allergy.

  • “You can’t eat chocolate anymore? Like, ever?”
  • “If you could eat chocolate again, what kind would it be?”
  • “Do you miss chocolate?”
  • “Are you hoping that they can cure your chocolate allergy? Then you could enjoy restaurants again!”
  • “How can you even go into the grocery store, knowing you can’t have chocolate?!”
  • “I just don’t know how I’d live if I couldn’t have chocolate! How could any other dessert stand up to chocolate?!”

Well as much as I enjoy the vision I have, and as much as I adore chocolate, I’ve got news for you. Vision isn’t chocolate. It isn’t even like chocolate. Yes, both are delightful, but that’s where the similarities end.

For one thing, while I would NOT be happy with a life without dark chocolate (don’t even mention milk chocolate because it just Isn’t The Same), my life with low vision is quite enjoyable and fulfilling. Unlike the chocolate-loving unfortunate who can’t eat chocolate, I don’t stand at the Sensory Deli Counter and drool over the senses I’m lacking. Because I’ve learned to live with my low vision – not by virtue, but by necessity – I do not lean dreamily against the wall and pine for the sense I appear to have lost.

Some time ago, an ancient Greek philosopher told us that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Most of us with sensory impairments can tell you that the average person takes this time-honored quote and replaces “unexamined” with the particular medical deficit that seems applicable. The blind life isn’t worth living. The deaf life isn’t worth living. The I-can-only-control-the-muscles-in-my-right-arm life isn’t worth living. What eludes the carriers of these attitudes is this: I don’t lead a blind life. I lead a life. I lead my life. As such, I wouldn’t relinquish the understanding, frustration, and joy that accompany my vision for the perceived benefits of “perfect vision.”

There are many things I would like to see better. I would like to be able to pluck my own eyebrows. I would like to be able to sightread piano music. I would like to be able to read the screen on an iPod. But these longings do not make it impossible for me to enjoy the life I live.

When you want to ask a blind person about his or her ideal vision, stop and consider which of your senses you would want to be “cured.” Think about a unique component of your perception or a talent that has emerged from a quirk in your movement, your speech, the shape of your face – and ask yourself how you would feel if most people told you that it should be removed or exchanged for something “better.” Remember that they will assume that you want to be “perfected,” because they cannot imagine living a vibrant life in your present state.

The perspective of a blind man is not more valuable because of his blindness. He’s not a saint for wanting to share his sensory experience with you.

When a blind woman stands in the rain, she is not more pathetic than a sighted woman standing in the rain. Her blindness does not make her clothing more permeable.

When you get to the bakery and they’re out of chocolate croissants, take a deep breath and try the scones. Even though chocolate is wonderful, it melts quickly on a sunny day.

6 thoughts on “Perfect Vision

  1. Heyya, Henry linked through to this entry as well.
    This was a fantastic read also. I enjoy your writing!
    There are a couple of things I’d love to challenge you on, namely:
    1) You mention that “both [vision and chocolate] are delightful, but that’s where the similarities end”, yet you write both about not “pining for the sense I appear to have lost” and also that “there are many things I would like to see better”.
    Aren’t these feelings possibly also similar to those someone with a chocolate allergy may have? Not pining over the loss of chocolate, but would like to have the ability to eat it if they were given the opportunity.
    I know that taking similes too far is de-constructive, but I think that vision and chocolate are more alike than just being “delightful”
    2) Whilst I whole-heartedly agree about your views on the “pathetic” nature of the person in the rain, is it not ok to feel sympathy (or empathy) for their situation, especially if the blind person is unable to locate shelter as easily as the other?

    Anyhows, just some food for thought.

    1. My, what a literal person you are! 🙂

      I used chocolate because it was a convenient example for me at the time. I love chocolate, but I do not have a chocolate allergy…So I can’t honestly speak to that predicament with accuracy.

      I am always in favor of empathy. Empathy, rather than sympathy, results from wanting to identify with someone rather than wanting to conjecture about his/her experiences. Certainly, I’d feel for a blind person if he/she was struggling to get out of the rain, but I think I’d feel for any person in that situation.

      Whether or not the blind person has more difficulty finding shelter is not necessarily because he/she is blind. It would depend on his/her abilities and level of orientation and mobility training. It might also depend on how heavy the rain is. To the sighted observer, the blind person may look like he/she is struggling because he/she is taking more time, but he/she could also be in search of a familiar landmark. I often choose a longer route simply because it is easier for me to travel. That isn’t Fate putting me on a more challenging path because I’m blind and can’t choose any route I want. It’s a self-determined choice I make based on my assessment of my skills and my environment.

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