The Unbearable Brightness of Seeing. And then not.
Commentary by Pete Haug | FāVS News
Eight years ago I had cataract surgery in both eyes. It extended my clear vision for years. Aging is now changing that.
A poke in the eye with a stick
Those who’d experienced it assured me, “Piece of cake. No problem.” For me, it was a problem, truly a poke in the eye with a stick — a hypodermic needle.
The procedure was new, designed to eliminate a boring healing regimen of three different drops, four times daily, for a month or more. “Sure, Doc,” I said. “Let’s try it.” So we did.
During the procedure I heard “blood.” Later the doctor explained that some blood had appeared in the vitreous humor, a jelly-like substance that fills most of the eye. He said all was well.
That evening, as I looked out the window with that eye, all was definitely not well. I saw a dim, translucent rectangle framed by a dark background, the bright window framed by the wall.
My light was spent
At that moment, my mind leapt to John Milton’s insightful sonnet:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide …
Milton was 43 when his failing eyesight left him. At 79, I realized that my experience was not something to make light of.
Although in reasonably good health, I didn’t want to lose the sight of even one eye during whatever time I might continue to live.
Milton wrote that sonnet three years after living with his blindness, partly to lament his inability to use his considerable writing talents. To emphasize his dilemma, he alludes to Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. Milton fears that his writing talent is “lodged with me useless,” though his soul is “bent” to serve his Maker.
A large part of Milton’s life was spent in service. He was intellectually weaned on the King James Bible, published three years after his birth, and was a deeply religious, God-fearing Puritan. In the sonnet, he fears his loss of vision will prevent him from presenting his “true account” on Judgment Day, when God might “chide” him: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
Answering his own question, he writes:
God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
Bearing the mild yoke
After my eye healed, the second surgery went well. The world looked better and brighter. Lots brighter. Opening the refrigerator the day after my second surgery, I recoiled from the light, blinking as I came away.
My cataracts were gone. Adjusting took a while as I continued to experience the unbearable brightness of seeing. On sunny days, I donned wrap-around amber lenses that covered my regular glasses and protected me from side light as well.
Things looked okay for a while, but aging’s inevitabilities brought new challenges. A few years ago, my optometrist told me I had age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The macula, a small area at the back of the eye, contains light-sensitive cells responsible for clear, sharp vision, fine detail and colors. AMD is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 65.
I’m lucky. Now 87, I’m still pretty functional, although I carry a flashlight and find myself using it more and more. People often have to find stuff for me, and I’m learning to pay more attention to where I place things in the house. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but some old dogs can learn new tricks by themselves (with coaching from loved ones).
Milton served magnificently
After going blind, Milton produced his best literary works. Over several years he dictated “Paradise Lost,” perhaps the greatest epic poem in the English language, to “justify the ways of God to man.” It was first published 15 years after he lost his eyesight, proof that Milton never lost his vision.
As my own sight deteriorates, I try to understand that other kind of vision, one that transcends physical limitations and provides insight into the spiritual, I recall the words of Baha’u’llah:
Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.
Elsewhere He wrote:
That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. … Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. … It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.
Milton’s closing line is famous:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
As Milton did, I continue seeking ways to serve. I envision possibilities. I have a keyboard. Milton didn’t. Not content to stand and wait, I sit and write.