Neurologist Oliver Sacks tells a fascinating story about Virgil, a man who received sight at age 50 after spending 45 years totally blind. His book An Anthropologist on Mars tells a tragic tale about a man who struggled to adapt to his new-found sense. On the surface, it seems like such a story would be a wonderful, heartwarming story of triumph and celebration. In reality, Virgil’s story is fraught with confusion, loss of identity, and even health.
At first marveling at the light that he was able to perceive, Virgil was quickly overwhelmed by the confusion of so much light, color, shapes, and movement. What people born with vision take for granted became difficult, even terrifying. A bird flying by, even at a distance (for distance was meaningless to him), was more than a little startling. Making connections between flat shapes and 3D objects was almost impossible (a circle and a sphere were totally unrelated). The story of Virgil is heartbreaking. His tactile world, that was ordered and in which he was thriving, was shattered. His identity was lost as he realized he was neither blind nor sighted. After making some improvements, he suffered a setback when an unrelated illness caused him to nearly lose the ability to breathe. He almost died, and in the process he lost his job, his home, and eventually his sight again.
It is one thing to have physical ability to perceive light hitting your retina. It is another process to interpret that light in the midst of the world. Virgil was never able to fully incorporate the light which was in front of him. He was never able to distinguish the shapes, colors, movements, and flashes into a coherent vision of the world. He spent fifty years in world of touch. He was able to spend a few months in a world of vision, and when the two worlds collided, the result was not pretty. It almost indirectly cost him his life. Would he have been able to adapt if given more time? Perhaps. Was the stress of the two worlds colliding too much for him to take? Did it hasten the progress of his sickness? That certainly seems reasonable.
Virgil’s story illustrates that being able to see is different from having sight. There is a story in the Bible about sight and blindness. It is told in the ninth chapter of John.
In this story the man born blind has no such difficulty adapting. Instead, it is the Pharisees who cannot cope. They had a very ordered world. It was their role in society to keep the order. They used the Biblical Law to understand what was clean and unclean, what was righteous and sinful, what was in order and what was out of order. A man born blind was clearly out of order. Sin is punished with curse. Righteousness is rewarded with prosperity.
This is how the story begins. Even the disciples understand the world in this way. Sin is the only explanation for blindness. The only question is, who’s sin? So they ask Jesus to clear things up. “Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus turns the order upside down immediately. He gives an answer that is completely out of their expected order, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”
After the healing, there is much confusion. The people do not know what to make of this healing, so they take him to the ones whose job it is to answer questions about order. The Pharisees are baffled. They are split. They investigate. In the end, they cannot understand this new order that Jesus is proposing. Jesus does not fit into their order. He healed, which must be of God. He worked on the Sabbath, which is a sin. These two facts are so starkly in contrast, they cannot make sense of them. The world of Jesus collides with their world, and the result is not pretty.
When you read Virgil’s story, it is easy to feel compassion for him. In receiving sight, he was changed so drastically that it was difficult to cope. It wasn’t just laziness, or stubbornness. There were physical, emotional, and neurological hurdles that were enormous. That he didn’t “make it” as a sighted person does not make him weak.
Perhaps we can take a similar amount of compassion to the Pharisees. Their world was being turned upside down. They knew what they were seeing, but they couldn’t interpret it in the midst of their world. They were not able to incorporate the light which was in front of them. They were able to see, but they never possessed the sight needed to understand what they were seeing. It is easy to condemn the Pharisees, put black hats on them, and call them the bad guys.
Demonizing is tricky business. Were they at fault? Sure. It would be wise to remember though, that Jesus cast out the demons, he didn’t cast “demonhood” on others. Neither should we.
I think we’d do well to remember that there’s a difference between seeing Jesus, and having vision. When Jesus comes off of the page, out of the two-dimensional world we so often like to keep him, disruptive things can happen. When we incorporate Jesus into the world, there can be collision that is discomforting. Catching a vision of the Kingdom of God knocks us out of our daily existence. It challenges our preconceived notions. It breaks our routine. It shatters prejudices. Suddenly we’re supposed to be loving our neighbor. Suddenly we’re supposed to forgive as we are forgiven. Suddenly all of our instincts of survival and self-hood are replaced by Kingdom instincts of abundant life through selflessness.
It’s a struggle, and it’s a process. We may experience a flash of euphoria when the weight of sin and shame is lifted. Usually there is more to it though. It is rare for the scales to be removed, and all understanding to come at once. Even the man in the Biblical story, though he could see, took time to process what had happened to him. Even he didn’t open his eyes and praise Jesus, the Son of God.
It’s no wonder that for so many, the vision doesn’t stick. It becomes easier to be blind, to shuffle through life slowly, methodically, unchallenged by the light. Turn a blind eye on the suffering. Turn a blind eye on our own sin. Turn a blind eye on the injustice, on the first remaining first, and the last being pushed farther and farther down the line. It’s no wonder so many cannot see
Jesus healed the blind man so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in him. There’s a difference between seeing and having sight. We are called to do more than see. We are called to have God vision, to catch the vision of Christ, and see the Kingdom of God. For if we can see it, we can live into it. There is a difference between seeing Jesus in a Bible, or in stained glass, or in a movie, and catching onto this vision for the world. When see Jesus, I mean really see Jesus, it changes the way we look at the world. It changes how we look at our neighbor. It changes how we look at a stranger. It changes how we look at suffering. It should also change the way we see ourselves. See the world with Christ’s vision so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in you.