During our drive last night on the way to meet some friends for dinner, my wife Katie described a book that she has been reading as part of her volunteer work with Decorah Reads! It’s a program that connects middle school students with reading mentors and Katie has enjoyed being a volunteer for several years. Her current book is entitled, Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements, the story of a boy who literally becomes invisible, and the blind girl who befriends him. As Katie described the unlikely story line, I was immediately struck by a conundrum that became my title above: how would you connect someone who is blind with someone who is invisible? Physics and biology aside, it’s a fascinating puzzle.
Over the years I’ve known enough blind people to recognize the cultivation of other senses they exhibit in navigating daily life with efficiency and grace. For many, the enhanced senses of touch and hearing, especially, cultivate an awareness of the world that sighted individuals can only dream about. This was made clear to me years ago during a time when I was recording programming for the Minnesota Blind Radio network. My weekly shows were broadcast around the state of Minnesota on a closed blind radio channel. Nonetheless, I was shocked one day when, walking and talking with Katie on the St. Olaf College campus, a young man with a white cane approached me and asked, “Is that Steve Sheppard? I’d know that voice anywhere! I listen to your programs every week!” His audio acuity as evidenced in a chance pass-by on the sidewalk demonstrated a remarkable ability to “see” me, in some ways better than sighted individuals might have. (For one thing, he didn’t have to contend with my face.)
I confess that I’ve never personally known anyone who is physically invisible; I suppose that I may have met such an individual and simply not seen him/her. But I imagine that similar compensations must develop in anyone who cannot be seen by others. Initially, it must be downright exciting to go anywhere, to do anything, without being seen. The condition could certainly open doors closed to everyone else, and the fun one could have is nearly beyond imagination!
But for the blind person, I doubt that there is often a feeling of preference for blindness over sightedness. Heightened other senses notwithstanding, sight is a gift, to be treasured, to be strengthened, to be used with every other faculty we may have in order to discover the truth of our lives. It’s not that blind people cannot do this, but that they have one less tool to use in pursuing it. And for the invisible man or woman, I think eventually it must become frustrating to realize that no one will ever really know you’re “there,” that your very existence is unrecognized by anyone else. The anonymity in moving about covertly, privately, becomes overshadowed by the sense of an unseen and unfelt existence. In the end, blindness and invisibility are both conditions with which we all must contend in pursuit of the truth. Blindness is not always about physical sight. Invisibility is not always about defying physics.
The characters in Katie’s book eventually must discover each other through touch, and likely that’s the remedy for the rest of us, as well. We must come to know and touch the “other.” Only when those of us who are blind have taken the opportunity to reach out and discover the invisible can we begin to understand their existence and the realities of their hidden lives, to meet the needs for which they have desperately searched in an opaque world. When we do that, those apparitions begin to materialize for us, to become real, to be human. And when their invisibility starts to fall away, an interesting thing happens to the rest of us. We begin to see. Only vaguely, perhaps, at the start, but the shapes and forms and intents in our lives begin to hold some very different meanings. That which we have previously beheld through touch and sound or fear and surmise can become vision, and lead us to a very different way than the way from which we have come.
As I jockey myself between the often radically different cultures in the United States and Nicaragua, I find some important truths within the worlds of the blind and the invisible….