January 30, 2008

Blind Man “Sees”

From NPR’s All Things Considered tonight: David Stewart, a man blind from retinitis pigmentosa, has visual hallucinations. In the story about it, the interviewer also explores other ways that the brain “fills in the blanks.” In addition to blindness, there are deaf people who hear sounds, and those who have lost a limb who still feel it. The cause is something called Charles Bonnet syndrome where the brain draws on its past experiences in the absence of current stimuli.

The story included a portion of chapter 108 from Moby Dick where Ahab “feels” the leg he has lost to the whale. Ahab knows his leg is missing but for some reason it feels like it is still there, still part of him. He says to his companion: “Where thou feelest tingling light, there, just there, there, to a hair, do I. Isn’t it a riddle?”

And then the story on the radio ends, with this comment: “Captain Ahab’s brain was behaving just like David Stewart’s brain: compensating for a loss.”

And it makes me wonder if there is something built into our souls, as well as our brains, that causes us to compensate for loss. How would that work? Would people who have not had children compensate for that loss by loving the children of the world, by “seeing” them somehow as their own to care for, respond to, nurture, and support? Would people who have been through a job loss compensate by feeling for the currently unemployed?

I think that some who have suffered loss respond by becoming bitter or grasping or resentful. But what if we compensated for all our losses by seeing how the world would be without any loss at all? Isn’t that what faith is about? Or maybe that is what people mean when they say that love is blind. We have all lost something – some vision, some love, some precious part of our selves. Can we still feel? And do we, deep in our souls, compensate for our losses by feeling the loss in the world and responding?

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