I don’t remember if I mentioned it, about a half year ago, when I had my cataracts fixed. (Has it really been that long, already?) I was a little young for that particular affliction, but my doctors all agreed that accelerated cataract development was an after-effect of the steroids that are given with chemotherapy, to protect against dangerous reactions.
So, I had noticed, almost a year ago now, that my vision had changed. I had always been extremely nearsighted, and my left eye was always a bit worse. But, I found then that the vision in my left eye had become distinctly blurry. So I went to my optometrist, and she quickly determined that the blurriness was caused by the developing cataract, and not by my nearsightedness; it could not be corrected.
A few months later, I was getting really annoyed with my lack of vision on the left side. I made an appointment to see an ophthalmologist, and he found that my vision in that eye was just at the point that surgery became an option; I couldn’t be corrected past 20/50. He also told me that, as nearsighted as I was, when he fixed my left eye, and made it so I wouldn’t need glasses for that eye, the difference between my two eyes would be so great that I wouldn’t be able to function, with or without glasses; that would then justify fixing the second eye.
The day after my left eye was fixed, when the doctor removed the patch, I was astounded — not just at the sharpness, but at the brightness! The colors! I had had no idea how much the cataracts had been yellowing and darkening everything that I saw. When we left the doctor’s office, we stopped at Costco before going home; it was so bright and clean in the store! I had always thought of it as a dingy store, but everything was painted a brilliant white. I looked through my right eye and everything was dingy; through my left eye, clean and bright.
Regaining the colors and brightness that I hadn’t even known I had lost has been as great a joy for me as being able to see clearly just by opening my eyes.
For a few weeks after the surgeries, I had to make do with reading glasses from the drug store. Then I was fitted for prescription reading glasses. I got no-line bifocals with the coating that makes them darken into sunglasses in sunlight, just like I had before. And I discovered something I hadn’t known. Even when the glasses appear completely clear, they still darken everything ever so slightly, and distort color, ever so slightly, muting the blue, and bringing up the yellow — just like a very slight cataract. The only time this effect is completely undetectable is in bright daylight or in darkness.
I had been wearing this kind of glasses for years, without knowing that they were distorting how I saw color and light, just like I lived with cataracts for a long time without knowing they were distorting colors and filtering light.
How many other things, both within us and around us, prevent us from seeing things as they truly are, without us being aware of it?
I began writing the preceding paragraphs on Friday, the day of the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado. On Saturday, I thought I should put this unfinished essay aside to write something about the violence. (This blog is about love.) Then, I realized that the work I had already started was, in fact, the prologue to what I am led to write in response to Aurora.
The stunned moment of silence when the shooting has stopped is an opportunity to see things as they truly are, not just because we are unsettled, but because the shooter has been so diligent in depicting his pathology. The circumstances give some reason to suspect that the shooter (James Holmes) had, to some extent, conflated reality and fantasy; the entertainment culture of action and violence had come to seem real. His perception was distorted by a cataract, one made of mental illness and culture.
Culture bears a strong metaphoric resemblance to cataracts and subtly tinted lenses. Someone (Bad memory! Bad!) said that culture is the ocean in which we all swim, as invisible to us as the water is to fish. It’s ability to change, even dominate, our perceptions and subsequent thoughts and actions is obvious to anyone who has met and talked to people from other cultures and sub-cultures; we often see things differently, understand them differently, and respond differently.
Yeah, this is all elementary. But my question is this: knowing all of this, why, why, why, do we choose to watch Batman movies? And Ironman movies? And all of the other distorted entertainments that color our vision and judgment to see the world as hostile, violent, sociopathic, and scary? Not that this makes us shoot up movie theaters, but that it must make us unhappy! Why would we want to see life through a cataract that makes the world look more like Gotham City than it actually is?
And this suggests another question: if our entertainment culture is distorting our vision to expect malevolence and violence, is this distorted vision distorting our decision-making, in matters both private and public? Are we messing things up because we see them through this cataract?
Yes. Indubitably. We are coming to see people as either all good or all bad, heroes or villains, and are losing our capacity for compassion. We see force and violence as the only response, and are losing our will to solve problems.
There’s more to our entertainment culture than super-heroes. News and commentary have become entertainment, as well, and they are ubiquitous. A shocking number of people keep a TV droning news and commentary in every room of their house. Some restaurants and bars have a TV on every wall. And of course, in the car, there’s talk radio. And because it is all entertainment, it doesn’t have to comport to reality, it just has to entertain; so attitude and hostility have replaced reason and compassion in public discourse, and because it is culture, the ocean in which we swim, the cataract in our eyes, many people have come to think this is how we are supposed to talk to each other, with attitude and hostility. And it is making our world more like Gotham City.
Turn off your TVs, set your radio to music, choose entertainment that will build long-term happiness, not short-term excitement and long-term blindness and misery.
In my last post, I mentioned that one of the people I turn to for spiritual guidance is Thomas Merton, a prolific writer, a cloistered monk who died in 1968. Here is a passage he wrote way back in the 1940s, shortly after he entered the monastery: We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.