Optics

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? –Mark 8.18

I’m seeing things a little differently these days. Specifically, I had to get new glasses. It wasn’t something I planned on doing just yet. It hasn’t been even a full year since I got my last glasses and my prescription hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 10 months. Still, two doctors and a therapist strongly suggested that I would be better off looking at the world a different way.

Even though I’ve had progressive lenses for at least two decades it’s not a good idea for me to wear those lenses anymore. Don’t read too much into that metaphorically. Did you know that the eyes and the ears work together to help you maintain balance? The brain is constantly evaluating information from the vestibular (balance) organ in the inner ear against information from the eyes to keep the body balanced. The brain is also processing data from the feet and other parts of the body, too, but the eyes and ears do most of the work and if the vestibular-ocular reflex is out of whack your world starts to spin.

It seems, according to the two doctors and the balance therapist, that the seamless shift in focus that makes progressive lenses so desirable and efficient in so many ways was actually causing me a problem. Because I have Meniere’s Disease, those lineless lenses with their fluid shifts in focal lengths were probably contributing to more frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Their field of focus at all focal lengths isn’t wide enough to give good clarity to peripheral vision and my formerly nimble but now aging neural processor can’t adapt the way it used to with things going in and out of focus. There’s a metaphor you can go to town with.

So I’m seeing things a little differently. I now have to use multiple pairs of glasses—distance and reading bifocals, computer and reading bifocals, distance only. Sunglasses, of course. It takes some getting used to, this business of switching out glasses depending on what I’m doing and where I’m looking, and like anything that takes some getting used to I have moments when it all seems excessively bothersome and I’m sorely tempted to go back to my one-lens-does-it-all spectacles. But even when I’m grousing about it I have to admit that I’ve already noticed an unexpected benefit. I’m actually seeing everything more clearly, at least when I’m wearing the right glasses at the right time. Feel free to play with that metaphor, too.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus in Luke 4 as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind…” Recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was speaking of restoring the actual capacity for sight to those with physical visual impairment, of course, but I think he also was speaking in a broader metaphorical sense. After all, he frequently referred to the eyes and to sight as metaphors for perception and understanding.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” wrote John Heywood in 1546. We all have our blind spots. We all have areas of life where it would do us good to switch out lenses, to make sure we’re getting the whole picture, to make sure we are really seeing what is right in front of us and what is off to the side and what is coming in at an oblique angle–to make sure we’re focused on the right thing at the right time with the right lens. The problem is that we get so comfortable with our old lenses that we might not even notice that they’re distorting our vision of the world; it might not occur to us to take them off and try on something with a clearer view.

One very popular lens that we cling to as we get older is “The Way Things Used To Be” and its even more astigmatic variant “Back When Things Were Great.” The world we see now seems to have gone askew but we think it’s because the world has become twisted and it doesn’t occur to us that it might be the old lens that’s skewing our vision. Sure, things are different, things have changed, but is it really so bad as it looks or are we seeing it through a skewing lens? Ah, that old lens that’s so comfortable, that we’re so used to—that lens that we carefully ground for ourselves out of years halcyon memories. It’s a great lens.…the problem is that it never really was anything like accurate. Sure, Things Were Great “back then,” but only if you were one of the people included in the category of People For Whom Things Are Great. If you broaden your focus to the larger number of People Who Are Not You and then look at People For Whom Things Were Not So Great you’ll get a more realistic picture of how things were and how things are. But you’ll have to change lenses to do that.

There is a whole family of Idealized lenses. Some skew the world toward the positive and some toward the negative but they’re all distorted to some degree. Take, for instance, the “Everything Is Perfect” lens. How anyone manages to navigate the world with this lens is beyond me, but people do. They tend to stumble a lot over things the lens obscures, things which are not perfect but which they just won’t allow themselves to see. There’s the “Everything Will Be Perfect When” lens which, while it gives a more realistic view than its cousin, tends to keep one’s focus narrowed in on a few small things which need to get fixed in order to achieve either personal or collective utopia. For all its claimed farsightedness this lens can be dangerously myopic.

There is, of course, the polar opposite of the Idealized family of lenses, the Cynical family which not only distorts but darkens everything you see, and not in a good Ray Bans-on-a-Sunny-Day kind of way. These lenses make you see the world through a perpetual fog of gloom.

So what lenses are you wearing? How are you seeing the world? Jesus came to restore sight to the blind—to all of us who are blind in any way. Jesus came to change our lenses, to teach us to see the world and each other anew through the lens of God’s love, and then to become opticians of the heart so that we can bring the clarity of God’s love, God’s vision, to others.

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. –Matthew 13.16-17

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