Matters of perception

Lacombe: Monsieur Neary, what do you want?
Neary: I just want to know that it’s really happening. —Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977

Blind-SignSeeing is believing, we say. What you see is what you get. We tend to accept what our eyes tell us about the world. The sky is blue. The grass is green. The sun is a warm, yellow ball rising in the east.

Okay. The sun doesn’t actually rise—point of view sometimes shapes our interpretation of events. But for the most part, we trust what our senses tell us and doubt what they do not.

And what if our perceptions are flat-out wrong? The mathematician John Nash, subject of Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, imagined a world of people and threats that did not exist—schizophrenia warped his perceptions and broke his grasp on reality. John Nash learned a lesson that could benefit all of us: The mind sometimes lies.

Oliver Sacks, MD., the accomplished neurologist and subject of the film Awakenings, tells of a talented artist, a man whose paintings were in great demand because of his keen eye and skilled hands.

An automobile accident put the artist in the hospital, but he was fortunate—just a bump on the head, a mild concussion. He went home, slept, and awoke the next morning with a terrible headache. But he knew the remedy for that: He dressed quickly and hurried off for the sanctuary of his downtown studio.

It was a gloomy morning and his mind was still reeling from the accident. He felt somewhat ill-at-ease, even disoriented. He ran a red light—never saw it!—and was given a ticket. At last, agitated but relieved, he arrived at his studio and shut the door behind him. As he removed his coat and crossed the familiar room to begin gathering the day’s supplies, he froze.

In this brightly-lit space full of vividly-painted canvases, everything had turned gray. He tore into his tubes of paint in a panic: red was now black, yellow was the color of ash and couldn’t be distinguished from light blue or orange. His paintings had a stark and edgy look to them—they were repulsive, and he almost hid his eyes as he remembered what they had been. There was not a trace of color anywhere in the entire room, just gray, gray and more gray.

Weeks later, his doctor made the unhelpful diagnosis of cerebral achromatopsia—total color-blindness originating in the brain. Although his eyes were perfect, a highly-specialized, bean-sized set of neurons in his brain had been damaged by the accident, and it is there, in that tiny bundle of cells that we visualize what we know as “color.” Neurologists don’t yet understand how the brain pulls off this trick; they only know that we cannot “see” color without it. The artist never regained his color vision. In fact, in a few short months, even his dreams and memories had faded away to black and white.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the great prophet predicted that the Messiah would restore sight to the blind. Jesus is reported on a number of occasions to have done just that. Well aware of the significance of this particular miracle, the Jewish people were electrified and flocked to see this man for themselves. Word that someone was claiming to heal blindness had just the opposite effect on the religious leadership—they branded him a fake and suggested that anyone claiming to be healed by Jesus was probably in collusion with him. It was sometime after this that Jesus began referring to the leaders of Israel as blind guides who are leading the blind, a line that did not endear him to his enemies.

I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind. —John 9:39, The Message (Jesus speaking)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. —John 8:12, NLT, (Jesus speaking)

The Apostle Paul added this:

If our message is obscure to anyone, it’s not because we’re holding back in any way. No, it’s because these other people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention. All they have eyes for is the fashionable god of darkness. They think he can give them what they want, and that they won’t have to bother believing a Truth they can’t see. They’re stone-blind to the dayspring brightness of the Message that shines with Christ, who gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get… It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. —2 Corinthians 4:3-4,6, The Message

When a baseball fan tells the umpire he’s blind, it is no compliment. That much, at least, hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. We live in a golden age of learning and enlightenment. We are at the pinnacle of history. We are masters of the universe. Blind? Stumbling in the darkness? Us? Ludicrous!

In our modern sophistication, we have come to believe that there is no Truth with a capital T. In our modern cynicism, we have decided that one moral philosophy is just as good as any other. In our modern narcissism, we have made ourselves the center of our own personal universe, and the god we worship is us.

In the Christian view of things, the world suffers from achromatopsia—color-blindness on a massive scale. But where the artist at least understood that it was his perception of things that was at fault, we have come to accept our monochromatic point-of-view as the way things really are. What we cannot see we dismiss, and in our gray-scale lives, we are blind to the Technicolor reality of God’s presence in the world.

What if a spiritual realm exists just beyond the reach of our perceptions? What if we really are blind and in need of the healing touch of Jesus Christ? What if the pure and brilliant light of God were to flood our awareness like the midday sun? What would we see?

We know that our minds are capable of lying to us. Which version of reality do we accept: that our vision is 20-20, or that we really ought to go shopping for a good guide-dog? It’s a tough choice.

Give it some thought. Meanwhile, I’m going to ask Jesus to help me across the street.

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