Seven Billion Realities

As my three faithful readers might have noticed, I took a week off from writing this column. I always take a week off during my anniversary. Other holidays have lost much of their significance for me. My sons are grown so Christmas isn’t such a big deal any more for example. I usually take my birthday off but that’s not as important as it once was since it’s getting too hard to blow out all of the candles. Last birthday I had to use my inhaler twice just to get through it. So anniversary week is a big deal at our house. This is our 41st anniversary meaning the number wasn’t as significant as some of the others. What made this anniversary so special is that I could see without glasses. My perception of the world has changed drastically.

Of course I started to be able to see when I first got glasses at age nine. But my eyesight has deteriorated over the years. Even with glasses I had trouble. Exhibit A is that I passed a coworker at the grocery store and didn’t even notice him. He was highly offended until I offered to let him look through my glasses and explained that even with them I had vision issues. Of course it also could have been my food obsession or my ADHD.

Now I can see perfectly with my left eye. The source of my new gift of vision is cataract surgery performed by Major Michelle Harris MD at the AFA. She gave me the ability to see the world unassisted for the first time in sixty years. She is awesome and it is comforting to know that our future military leaders’ health is in the hands of such skilled and dedicated people. My right eye is still a little wonky due to corneal damage, but I was able to drive to Vail and back without glasses. Ok, I did wear sunglasses but they were regular sunglasses so even that was a new perspective. Before the surgery, I couldn’t even navigate the shower without Braille instructions on the towel rack. But now I was able to drive to Vail, our special place. We honeymooned there and our oldest son was conceived there. On this trip, I was able to sit on the banks of Gore Creek with my former bride and take in the beauty and peace without any glass getting in the way. I could also see her lovely face in a way I never could before.

They say that perception is reality. I hate that aphorism even as I acknowledge its utility. Human beings simply have a really hard time facing the world without the preconceptions that drive their perceptions. Confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, the Jehovah Witnesses at my front door, and Donald Trump all owe their existence to people’s distorted perceptions. Seeing things clearly is both an art and a learned skill that takes both knowledge and a lot of practice.

For many years I had a pond in my sixth grade classroom. Okay it was a ten gallon aquarium, but it mostly held creatures I gathered from the Woodland Park City Lake. I supplemented with life (hydra are really hard to catch in the wild) from a catalogue. Every school year started with kids piling into my classroom asking, “Where are the fish?” and “How come there’s nothing in there?” I patiently explained that there were hundreds of living things in the aquarium and pointed to a magnifying glass, microscope, and pond life guide arranged neatly on the counter next to it. As the year progressed, I taught them how to turn the aquarium light on and they first spotted the tubifex worms wiggling away from their burrows in the mud. Later they saw the daphnia stutter-stepping their way through the clear water. After a few lessons on microscope use, students learned to prepare daphnia slides in which they identified different algal cells being digested by the daphnia.

With proper training, students learned to see things that were invisible to them before. Considering that we now know that about 60% of the DNA we carry around is not human, the ability to appreciate small life is an increasingly important perspective. This is why I don’t like the “perception is reality” idea. Philosophers have, of course, been arguing about this problem for centuries. Since everyone’s perception is different, we should seven billion different realities. Such a path inevitably leads to chaos. I prefer to believe there is a common reality that can be objectively ascertained. True or not it is the only way to progress. It is why Dr. Harris was able to use a beam of light to cut open my eye and implant corrective lenses directly into my eyeballs. I understand that singular perception can lead to great art. Van Gough and Picasso come to mind, but shared reality advances the humanity’s living conditions. What use is a great painting if you can’t see it?

There is also evidence that acquiring new skill sets and new perspectives are helpful in holding off Alzheimer’s and dementia as we age. If so, I should be good for a while. For six decades, without glasses, my world consisted of the eighteen inches I could see around me. While my wife and other peers had to acquire reading glasses to see anything close up, I had to take my glasses off to read. Now, I can see the rest of the world clearly while the eighteen inches around me is a blur. In other words, I share the perspective of most people my age. And that’s a beautiful thing.