Monday, August 21, 2006

Now I See

The phone rang later than it usually does at night. I answered, and it was my ophthalmologist calling. Earlier that week, I had dutifully fulfilled his dictates and had my retina photographed. I'd done it before on several occasions - it doesn't hurt per se, but it isn't very pleasant. Unless, that is, you enjoy staring directly at high-intensity flashlamps as they go off. After it was over, I was handed a CD with the pictures on it for my doctor to examine and compare to the previous set, taken a couple of years ago. So he was calling to tell me the results.

At 11 PM at night, I wondered? Yes, he said, he had come in to the office late to catch up on some work. He told me in medical terms what I already knew experientially: there were changes in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer that underlies the retina itself, and that would account for the visual distortions I reporting from my left eye.

I've had high myopia since childhood, about -12 prism diopters for those to whom such numbers are meaningful (by comparison, above - 2 means you can't read the big E on the chart). For years I've dealt with the phenomenon of floaters - floating shapes and spots that are formed as the vitreous humor that filled the eye is stretched by the myopically elongated eyeball. You get used to each new floater as they come. But over a year ago, I started noticing that straight lines seemed a bit bent in the center when view through my left eye. My doc would examine the retina on eacy semi-annual visit and he saw no changes, so life went on. The distortions became a bit more extensive, and a patch of the central field of vision in my left eye became ever so slightly grainy, but the retina looked the same, so life went on.

Until that night. My doctor told me that his preliminary diagnosis was myopic age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in its dry form. The macula is at the center of the retina, and in high myopia, it can be stretched to a point where the light-sensitive cells are compromised, eventually resulting in blind spots toward the center of vision. There is currently no treatment for this most common form of macular degeneration, although this form tends to progress more slowly than the wet form, which makes up only 10% of the cases, but accounts for 90% of legal blindness due to macular degeneration. The wet form, while potentially more severe, has various treatment options; the dry form has none, although a diet rich in lutein (a pigment found in the RPE) and anti-oxidants (green leafy vegetables) has been observed to arrest or slow the progress of dry AMD in a number of cases.

The doctor agreed that it could be useful to consult a retinal specialist and reassured me that there is no reason why I shouldn't hope to see well for another twenty years.

It wasn't til the next morning that I realize that this week was Parashat Re'eh - the Torah portion which begins with the words, "See, I am setting before you a blessing and a curse".

And I suddenly realized: seeing can be both a blessing and a curse. Now don't get me wrong, I am not engaging in anticipatory sour grapes. I want so much to preserve my visual acuity (after corrective lenses!) for all the reasons you can imagine - I teach texts for a living; I'm loath to give up either reading or computer use, though I could cut down on the latter! I want to see, G-d willing, my grandchildren someday as they grow. etc., etc. But I am also keenly aware that seeing is also an act filtering out, of exclusion, of a subjective projection of the needs of one's person onto reality, onto others. The last paragraph of the Shema warns us, "do not go astray after your hearts/minds and after your eyes" in this order, we are told, because the heart desires and, only then, does the eye see. "You only see what you want to see", we chastise others.

Indeed, with reality such a swirling multitude of ever-changing visual imputs, all needing our brain's image processing to be made sense of, it could hardly be otherwise. To see everything is to see nothing. But, could it be that the reverse is also true: to see nothing is to see everything?

Rabbi Nachman makes this point powerfully in Likkutei Mohoran I:65. There, he explains that to see the ultimate goal, one has to squint. The eye doesn't have the power to go and fetch that most distant point, because of all the images and inputs from the side that enter into the wide-open eye and distract and confuse. Therefore, one must exclude all of that visual "white noise" by reducing the input dramatically. Ultimately, he claims, one must close one's eyes entirely (the context in whichi he is speaking is the squinting in pain when one is in great suffering), so as to see beyond the deceptions of this world and its seductions, to see that, ultimately, all is for the good.

All is for the good. I cannot tell you how long the mantra-like invocation of that achievement of the spirit told of only a few of our greatest sages has bugged me. When someone would mention that regarding a mundane hassle, I would think (not actually wishing it on them, of course), yeah, what if something REALLY heavy hit you over the head?); So often, I've heard it in the following kind of setting: plony was really upset that he had misplaced his watch, so he looked and looked until he lost track of time, only to realize that he was late for his meeting. Grumbling in anger, he raced off to the bus stop just in time to miss the only bus that could get him to the meeting on time - setting off paroxysms of anger that didn't subside until he heard the sound of the bus exploding in the center of town. See, you lose your watch, but all is for the good. I still insist that such a reading of the famous dictum, selfishly oblivious as it is to the suffering of others, is theologically offensive in the extreme.

And yet: there is another way to see things - literally. I've come to realize that, too often, in fact, constantly, I see events, people, developments, interactions, possibiities in a miserly fashion. I look at them through MY eyes. I don't shut out the confusion of MY world, as it drums away from the sideline, insisting on setting the context of every encounter. Rather, I'm constantly capturing, framing, delimiting, identifying. I refuse to let being be. I refuse to really see.

A sea-change has come over me - a new chapter, full of promise, frought with danger. I don't know what will be with my eyes. I do know that, even as I consult with a retinal specialist and eat lots of green vegetables, I don't want to pray to Hashem to preserve my vision because I can't see myself without it. Rather, I want, and do, oh constantly, do pray to Hashem that He help me open my inner I, so tightly shut for so long, so that whatever He in His wisdom wishes me to see of His world and His creatures, and with whatever degree of acuity He grants me, I view them with love and compassion, seeing in them the fullness of His blessing.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Gavriel said...

Wow. I was just going to take a look at your formats and stuff first, but your writing is what grabbed me. I also pray Hashem grants you the ability to see what you need to see, as long as you need to see it. I'm trying really really hard not to just say I hope your everything goes well with your eyes, to show I understood what you were getting at, but it's quite difficult. Your words showed painted a picture of a beautiful spiritual place, but it's very hard to actually get there.

One lesson learned is that I think I might unplug my phone after 10pm at night from now on.

At 6:27 PM, Blogger ravyehoshua said...

thanks for the encouragement, Gavriel, as well as the inspiration by example!

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Regina Clare Jane said...

What a wonderful post. Gavriel said to give your blog a look-see and so I did. My dad has macular degeneration so this post really hit home for me. May G-d richly bless you always and sustain you in your journey to really seeing ;)


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