Back when I was in my mid-twenties, I actually thought that having a girlfriend would ameliorate the damaged symbolism of my blindness.
I wasn’t a defective sighted man, I had a young woman at my side. How could there be anything wrong with me? (My girlfriends were invariably non-disabled. Why not? They could drive and obviously, I needed their seal of approval.)
At the time I was a graduate student studying poetry at the University of Iowa and I stumbled across the work of Freidrich Schiller. I was legally blind and with my sliver of residual vision, I’d press my nose to the bindings of shelved library books. Later with the help of a hired reader I’d explore the volumes I found at random.
Schiller changed the way I think with these simple lines:
The reality of things is the work of the things; the appearance of things is the work of Man, and a nature which delights in appearance no longer takes pleasure in what it receives but in what it does.
As a blind man who struggles daily in the sighted world and as a poet who clings to the romantic ideal that the inner life has tremendous value, I’ve long taken heart from this passage. Reality—what is “out there” and surrounds us always is a product of the physical world. That world takes care of itself. And we, in turn, take up “what things look like”—what things suggest to us, and we’re always trying to further what we see and know.
We humans feel incomplete. We’re part of nature only insofar as we can talk about it or change it. Moreover, we need others desperately.
Back in my Schiller discovery days, I believed that an able-bodied woman would be the anodyne for my appearance.
Nowadays I understand the pathology of this. I also understand that this isn’t a disability story alone since cis-gendered heterosexual men invariably believe that women must and will complete them.
If you’re a self-aware man you understand this and you recognize the burden this places on women.
Men can’t take pleasure in women—their accomplishments, their actions, their lives, their hopes if they’re subconsciously demanding their own completion by association. You don’t have to be a student of Carl Jung to know this.
Most men do not take sufficient pleasure in the lives of women. Accordingly, they have limited satisfaction. It’s a clotted, sweaty, tucked unhappiness men live, too often without irony or emotional intelligence. The men I’m describing are lonely and angry.
I got my first glimpse of this masculine prison when I trained to get a guide dog in my thirties.
On day two of guide dog training, I was required to walk with a sighted woman dog trainer who would play the role of a guide dog by pulling on a harness. She’d pretend to be my dog and I had to issue commands to her. I was incredibly embarrassed. I actually had to walk a harnessed woman around a parking lot.
Now I see that embarrassment can be good for personal growth. Moreover, my experience playing dog games with that lovely woman so long ago broke down walls of resistance I’d been living all my life. It was OK to be vulnerable, to ask for help. The great Vietnamese Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh famously wrote: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
All at once I was blindly walking with a woman I scarcely knew and she was doing her job, preparing me to be a successful blind traveler, and some of my suffering was flying away on wings of awkwardness. As it should be.
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