Any linguist worth her salt will explain that the metaphors we use in casual conversation actively shape our perceptions of reality. We ride emotional roller coasters, package our ideas, hope our arguments will hold water, and cast our spells over the ones we love. These metaphors make our language rich and descriptive; they help us transform familiar stories and revive stale scenarios. Most writers rejoice in metaphors, especially as they take the first shaky flights in their newly discovered craft. The pen skitters across the paper, the hands cramp, and the engines of creativity roar to life.
While I am eager to embrace the wild descriptive potential of language, one metaphor invariably stops me in my tracks – the use of “light” as a signifier of goodness, knowledge, and superiority. We bring matters “to light,” we “enlighten” someone who was “in the dark,” and we call particularly intelligent people “bright.” Even periods of history proclaim these metaphors: The Enlightenment and The Dark Ages. God said, “Let there be light,” Milton considered how his “light” was spent, and Romeo contemplated his beloved Juliet as the sun – the ultimate light. In essence, “light” always represents something positive.
I’ve been troubled by this metaphor ever since I learned to name it. As an extremely light-sensitive person, I don’t experience a positive connection to light. Sunlight feels warm and invigorating, but it fills my eyes with a dull ache and washes out my vision. In general, light complicates my reality – rendering previously visible things invisible – until I feel like a foreigner in the most familiar places.
The metaphor carries more than physical associations, because “darkness” metaphors work in tandem with “light” ones. Often, blindness is described as “total darkness,” and people who have lost their vision are said to live “in the dark.” Blind and sighted people regularly employ these phrases, giving the impression that they are acceptable and accurate.
This “total darkness” is immense and impenetrable; it’s the kind of darkness we feared as children. For the sighted who think of blindness in these terms, the darkness holds unknown terrors and dulls the other senses. Yes, you may think that blind people have supersonic hearing and can smell hurricanes twenty miles away, but their darkness is a powerful force. It renders them incompetent, and it sucks the value out of life. People living “in the dark” are untouched by the kindness of friends and the empathy of strangers. They cannot draw happiness from the simple pleasures that sighted people experience. They can’t see rainbows or sunsets—and how can the joy of birdsong, the smell of nutmeg, or the sensation of silk compare to sunsets?
As long as we cast blindness as “darkness,” as the absence of “light,” we condemn those living with blindness to be eternally broken, waiting in the wings for Science or God to “lift the veil” so they can “see the light.” We build a prison of words and force blind people to dwell in it. Sometimes, they willingly cross the threshold—they pull the veil over their own faces because they don’t know that blindness can take a different name.
I prefer a candlelit blindness, a sense of vision loss that infuses the world with a dynamic golden glow. Like my real vision, candlelight is unpredictable but useful. I’m not interested in the bright flame of understanding, the blazing lightbulb of a new idea, or the constant beacon of truth. I know these lights would be too bright to bear. And like all great lights, even the brightest stars will burn out.
I want to cross out blindness as darkness and rewrite it as it really is: a condition that changes shape and form. The “total darkness” is eternal and constant, so unlike any human experience. If we must connect blindness to light, then we should connect it with candlelight. Let blindness convey something of the intimacy and gentle, flickering luminescence of candles. Let this new blindness bring to mind the smell of wax and burning wick, the sense of portable warmth.
It is time for us to step out of the darkness, to fold it neatly and lay it aside. Let it collect some dust on a library shelf while other metaphors take its place – metaphors that allow the experience of joy, competence, self-worth, and companionship. No one belongs in the dark.