Reflections on Three Days of Blindness—Part I
Thirty years ago I experimented with being blind. I covered my eyes for three days and lived briefly as a blind man.
The questions occurred to me when I was eighteen, several months out of high school, while contemplating my life and the world around me: “What must it be like to live in this world, for people who are blind? I wonder how I would manage if I was blind? I wonder how they manage?”
I would like to share my discoveries from that time with you, the answers that I learned to these questions. Because the answers, I think, have value not only for those who wonder what it might be like to be blind, as I did, but also for anyone wondering about the unknown, frightened perhaps a little about change, or fearful of what the future holds in this life or the next. And for anyone desiring to bridge the gap between themselves and those who are different from them, the results of this little experiment also might be useful.
The means of making myself blind were simple and very effective. First, I covered my eye sockets with cotton balls. Next, I covered over the cotton balls with large gauze pads, and then I used surgical tape to tape down all of the edges of the pads to my face, sealing entirely around the pads which covered my eyes. Lastly, I put on sunglasses. This last step was entirely for cosmetic and reasons of vanity, because, after the first two steps I couldn’t perceive even the tiniest trace of light, shade or shadow, so the sunglasses were completely redundant and superfluous. But they made me look good, so I thought, and I was eighteen after all; sunglasses are cool.
During my three day experiment I kept a detailed journal: tracking my activities, my thoughts and feelings, and my conclusions. It is mainly from this journal that I would like to share with you my journey and discoveries. In some cases, I’ll paraphrase or provide commentary as I look back on the experiment from the vantage point of a forty-eight year old adult, but in most cases I’ll let my original journaling speak for itself, in the original voice as I wrote when I was eighteen. I will set these original entries in quotes, and italicize them, so as to clearly delineate what is from that time, from what is my current commentary.
Prelude to Day One of My Experiment with Three Days of Blindness:
“Awaiting blindness, Friday night, February 12, 1988. 11:00pm. is something
like what I imagine awaiting one’s execution might be like. As I wait, I try
to indulge my senses as one who was about to die might enjoy and cling to his
last meal, or his final breath. I’m scared, even though it isn’t permanent. A dark,
dark prison is what it might be like, or maybe it’s really a doorway to a greater
consciousness, a larger freedom. Who knows—I don’t. I’m writing this before
my evening reading and meditation which, when I’m done, will be followed by
covering my eyes for the duration of three days—a relatively short time but
enough time, I think, to glimpse into the world of darkness, to somewhat
feel what it is like not to see. I will uncover my eyes on Monday the 15th at sun-
set, on the hill overlooking my home and surrounding neighborhood. Until
then these pages will be written by a seeing man who doesn’t see. Or does
Day One of My Experiment with Three Days of Blindness:
“I am feeling very frustrated. There are so many things I can’t do. I am constantly
running into things or knocking them over. I’ve broken a glass and spilled a lot
of water today. Victories include riding my unicycle around the block and walk-
ing around Safeway to get some whipped cream. In both cases, I was accompan-
ied by my good friend, Nicole. However, I felt very isolated at the grocery store.
I can’t help but feel that people with handicaps aren’t liked by those without them.”
Looking at this entry and remembering back to that grocery store visit, I can still recall a sense that I had of being looked at in a way that felt like unkindness, and even though I couldn’t see them, I felt that people were uncomfortable with my presence.
“This is still my first day of blindness. It’s about 6:15pm. I am fairly certain about
this because I’ve guessed the time within 3 minutes of accuracy throughout the
day today. The ability to know the time is still amazingly precise even without
eyesight. I remember when I was younger, closing my eyes and walking slowly
towards a wall, and I remember as I got closer to the wall, within a few feet of it,
I could begin to sense that it was there. I could feel a darkness, a slight pressure
exerted upon my face. The same is true today, but to an even greater degree.”
I don’t know why I was able to know the time so accurately, or how it is I could feel the wall from a distance. These, and many other experiences forthcoming are unexpected, and seem to show abilities in perception that we possess, of which we are not normally aware.
“Earlier this afternoon I pulled out my unicycle and decided to try it out. The
wheel was a little flat so I’d be riding slower than usual, but that was okay
with me since I couldn’t see where I was going. It would have been impossible
to do had I been alone, but Nicole was over today and she helped me.
At first it was really hard. I was shaking because I was scared, and I couldn’t get
on. Eventually I got going, went a little ways down the street, chickened out and
jumped off. I walked back to about where I started to try again. To get my bear-
ings I walk to the side of the road and count the number of steps across. The mid-
dle of the road is seven steps from the curb. After a few more short journeys I
begin to gain confidence. With Nicole in front of me I follow her voice and begin
the long trek around the block.”
“A car is coming up the street, so I get off the unicycle and walk to the side of the
street. Apparently sensing, without sight, when something is in front of you, is a
skill that requires concentration and some perfecting. I haven’t. I walked full-
force into a parked truck. It was actually funny and I’m sure the people in the
passing car enjoyed it also. Nicole laughed.
Again, I centered myself in the street, mounted my unicycle and took off follow-
ing her voice around the block. Rounding the curves are the best part; they
seem a lot harder than the straightaways. In complete darkness I rush forward,
trusting my guide’s voice, feeling very free in my solitary world.
Around the second corner, and back up the other side of the block. I can hear
kids playing something up the street. Distracted by this, I falter but maintain my
balance and continue. By now both Nicole and I are comfortable with the sit-
uation and I begin to speed up. Around the third corner and feeling great, only
one more to go and I’m home.
I’m not sure what happened, but Nicole didn’t tell me about the van. I was
moving at a pretty good clip but apparently also veering slightly towards the
side of the road. Suddenly, before hitting it, I did feel something very big right
in front of me. I stalled, spun and dismounted. Reaching out with my arm ex-
tended I felt with my hand the cold metal of the vehicle. I felt very lucky having
somehow escaped a potentially messy situation. But how did I know it was
there in time to stop? I was at least three feet away when I first felt it, probably
more. This ability to sense objects in our paths without seeing them isn’t just a
theory, it is definitely a reality and it just saved me. The world of the blind is
not a sightless world.”
Looking back on this, I remember at the time, the most memorable aspect of this experience was the adventure, and the freedom of facing the darkness and my fear, and overcoming them. That is still an important lesson for me, but now I’m particularly struck by the togetherness and friendship that Nicole and I had, as we faced this adventure, and as she helped me overcome what I couldn’t have done on my own.
“Vision. It is important to imagine and to create images to compensate in a
way for what I can’t see. To be able to picture in my mind what my surround-
ings look like is crucial. I wonder what people who were born blind can picture?
I bet a lot of their imaginings, their images, are better than our reality. I wonder
if they would be let down to really see. To get a good look at the pollution in the
air above Santa Rosa and the disgusting trash that lines every road and even
invades the innocence of my hill. No, I bet they would love to see even that.”
“Memory also plays an important role in my blindness. It goes hand in hand
with visualization. Remembering where things are and how they are organized.
In the kitchen I visualize the counter, set down my glass, walk to the stove, turn
the knob one-quarter turn to the right, crack the eggs and cut the tofu…do I
remember where the seasoning is located? Yes, it is in the front of the rotating
dolly on the shelf above me. Add it to the eggs and tofu already cooking, return
to the counter…remember, and save the glass that I left there…forget, and break
it. I’ve done both today.
Visualize the toothpaste going onto the toothbrush. Good. Do I remember what
my mom looks like? Yes, of course, it hasn’t been that long, but if I was blind
for a long time I would wish that someone would care, and understand enough
to ask me to tell them what she looks like. Or ask me to describe a banana, and
to explain what green is and where it is found. I mustn’t forget and neither
should anyone else.
Luckiest event today—having forgotten the car was parked in the driveway,
visualizing an empty driveway I walk across it to the garage. Somehow I missed
the car and made it safely to the garage. I had visualized myself walking up the
middle of the driveway, I guess I was wrong.
End of my first day. I’m tired.”