The Way I See It

Being poked and prodded at the doctor’s office is something that tends to become more frequent for people as they get older, but in my case I have been used to it for decades, despite still being in my 30’s.  Most of us who have no real medical issues to speak of at this point in life usually do not appreciate the gift of good health until something goes wrong, of course.  Yet when it comes to our senses, I suspect it is even more often the case that those of us who are younger do not often pause to reflect on the fact that the gifts and abilities we have been given are not things we will always be able to retain.

This morning I had a visit with the ophthalmologist to take a look at how things are going, and to get some new contact lenses ordered along with a new eyeglasses prescription.  In my case, I have been virtually blind as a bat since about the 1st grade, when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  It is a bit difficult to describe to people with generally good vision how I see the world around me when not wearing some type of corrective lenses.  However, if you take a look at a landscape painting by an Impressionist such as Monet, or perhaps a late seascape oil by Turner, you will get some idea of how the world looks to me when I get up in the morning or step out of the shower.

The switch from eyeglasses to contact lenses occurred when I was about 14 years old, and the technology which made this vision correction possible has been a great boon to me in many ways.  It has generally slowed down changes in my eyes, with the lenses acting as a sort of jelly mould to keep them from stretching and pulling in all directions.   It also increased my confidence somewhat, since I am not one of those people who look good in eyeglasses, thanks in part to my prescription being so extreme.  Getting rid of those thick pieces of glass in front of my face changed the way the world looked at me, even though lo these many years later, I look in the mirror and I still see myself as the chubby-faced, awkward nerd with bad skin, uncontrollable hair, and coke-bottle lenses.

As regular readers of these pages are very much aware, the visual world has always been of great importance to me, particularly with respect to the study of Western civilization and culture.  It is hard to imagine that there may come a time when I cannot go to the National Gallery and make my way to the Renaissance wing to gaze into the faces of the Virgin and Child in Raphael’s “Small Cowper Madonna”, with their sweet but innocent expressions and the peaceful, verdant Tuscan landscape behind.  Nor could I stand in the intimate space of the Small French Paintings gallery and study the rapid brushstrokes which compose Fantin-Latour’s self portraits, works so incredibly modern in feeling despite having been painted 150 years ago.

Now to be fair, the ophthalmologist has not said that I am in danger of losing my sight completely any time soon, which is a very good thing, but for those of us who have some sort of ocular disability, particularly if it is rather extreme as it is in my case, such a possibility is always, I suspect, in the back of our minds.  We read about different procedures for corrective eye surgery, and wonder whether we ought to have it done, of course running the risk of going blind or worsening our already-bad vision if the operation goes badly.  We also wonder whether technology is ever going to get to a point where either surgery or some other treatment is going to release us from the burden of purchasing expensive eyewear, solutions, drops, and regular doctor visits so that we can enjoy a life free of such drains on our time, finances, and psyches.

In my case, laser-corrective surgery is not, at least at its present state of development, a viable option for someone as near-sighted as I am, who just happens to have inherited some rather unusually shaped corneas – always a point of fascination for every ophthalmologist who has ever examined me.  Indeed, I have been told specifically that, and I quote, “Any doctor who would even think of performing corrective surgery on YOUR eyes ought to be found guilty of malpractice.”  Perhaps in time, with the incredible advances medicine continues to make, someday it might be possible to do something to improve my vision via elective surgery, but that day is not yet here.

Whether or not that day ever arrives for me and for others like me, however, when you are impaired in some way from what is considered “normal”, you really have only two choices.  You can either wail and bemoan your fate, wondering why you are not made like others who seem to have things easier than you, and go down various roads which can often lead to self-destructive behavior or emotional stress.  Or you can look at it – if you’ll forgive that word choice – as an opportunity to learn a lesson in personal humility and compassion toward others.

All human beings are, as a result of our fallen nature, flawed in some way: the issue is not *whether* one is imperfect, for we all are.  No matter how wonderfully charmed a life someone else seems to have, with seemingly no concerns about money, intelligence, appearance, opportunities, friends, and so on, there is not a single one of us who can claim that he is perfection personified. Rather, the issue is what we do with our imperfections once we gain the relative maturity necessary to both recognize and accept them.

For my part, if I do not know for how long I will be able to see, then all the more reason to make good use of the impaired gift of sight which I do have for however long I shall have it.  I have no absolute right to any of the gifts which I possess – they were freely given, like the very gift of life itself.  And in recognition thereof, I must be prepared to surrender them at any time.  God willing that will not be anytime soon, but even if it is, then my response as a man must be that of the ancient man of Uz, accepting that “The Lord giveth, and The Lord taketh away: Blessed be the name of The Lord.”

“Self Portrait” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1861)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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