A Cock-Eyed World View

I came out of the Sears optometrist’s room and saw my mother clearly for the first time in memory.
“You have freckles,” I said.

Later, I would find out that these words hurt her feelings. My mother, red-headed and of German ancestry, had a lot of freckles. Like me, she didn’t tan; the freckles just got bigger and closer together.

At age nine, I couldn’t remember seeing them ever. She felt bad that my vision had deteriorated so much that I hadn’t seen her face, or anything else for years. She blamed herself for not getting glasses for me sooner. But, in fact, glasses wouldn’t have stopped my visual degradation. It was bad genes; I got near-sightedness from my dad and astigmatism from her. Spurred on by my teacher, who figured out that even putting me in the front of the room didn’t help my learning, my parents had finally taken me to an optometrist. What I really needed was an ophthalmologist. Real eye doctors eventually became an important part of my life, but the optometrist was a huge step forward.

Glasses made a tremendous difference in my life. Exhibit A is that it was a lot easier to keep a baseball from hitting me in the face when I could see it coming, for example. Yes, I got called four-eyes and teased a lot. But at least then I could see the punches and identify my tormentors. My vision tested out at 20/400 and 20/440. Which means what you can see at the back of one end zone of the football field while standing at the back of the other (400 ft), is what I see at twenty feet. But over the years, eye doctors found additional problems that kept me from having perfect vision even with glasses. Cataracts, astigmatism, and a deformed cornea (courtesy of a tree branch and a cousin who was chasing me with a hatchet), all conspired to give me a cock-eyed view of the world.

Philosophically speaking, this distorted view of reality was a blessing. Unlike most people, I learned at an early age that seeing is not believing. Plato taught us, through his analogy of the Cave, that perceptions are extremely limited and therefore present a false reality. People tend to believe things when they “See it with their own eyes.” Eye witness testimony is given the highest value by juries even though science has proven again and again that eye witness testimony is the least reliable form of evidence. Human eyes see only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. We do not see radio or TV waves for example. They are everywhere, even traveling through walls we consider “solid”. Insects see ultraviolet light that we don’t. Some animals, snakes for instance, see infrared light while we need special cameras and glasses.

There are sounds we do not hear, sights we cannot see, smells we do not register (Google pheromone research), chemicals we cannot taste, and sensations we cannot feel. In spite of the evidence, most people not only feel comfortable with the paradigm created by their extremely limited perceptions; they cling tightly to it even when confronted with facts to the contrary. This phenomenon explains failure to believe DNA evidence, creationists, Trump voters, and Cubs fans. I, on the other hand, learned quickly that my vision was a lousy and unreliable source of information about the world. I learned that shared reality, backed by reproducible evidence was a much more useful way to “see” the world around me. The utility offered by a science-based reality helped me lead a much more satisfying life than that offered by my own distorted perceptions or those of other people.

The problem with my paradigm is that I live with lots of other people who don’t share it. A friend felt slighted by me for “ignoring him in the grocery store.” The truth is I didn’t see him, but he had a hard time accepting that. The problem is even more of an issue right now. Recently, I had cataract surgery in one eye. The doctor put in a corrective lens, so now I have 20/60 vision in one eye and 20/440 in the other. With one lens popped out of my glasses, I now I have lopsided vision. I always feel like I’m walking on a tilted floor, one false step from falling over. Without the glasses and using only one eye, I can actually see a lot of the world I have never been able to see before. Soon the doctor will do the other eye. She will remove the old clouded lens and put in a new one. Essentially I will have glasses implanted inside my eyeballs; then I will have reasonable vision without glasses for the first time in my life. I will actually be able to drive without glasses. Once both eyes are healed, I will get a new prescription and my vision should be the best it’s been in decades.

Previously, I had to wear hard contacts as well as glasses to see so well. And hard contacts were out of the question. In this dry climate, I wanted to scratch my eyeballs out. With the “miracles” of lasers, microsurgery, and plastic lens technology, I will see the world with the same clarity as most people. Or maybe even better. I won’t have to find my glasses first thing in the morning. And I’ll be able to see while I’m in the shower or when I’m swimming. Of course I’ll have the new problem of remembering sunglasses. It’ll be a new world for me, but its reality will still always be questionable.