Learning to Live and Lead Eyes Wide Open
Helen Keller said: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
People live with things far worse than blindness. We all confront challenges—real or imagined; mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual; societal, internal, or familial. We can never truly walk proverbially in another’s shoes, though we should imagine doing so to better understand his or her journey. Take that impostor’s walk to judge or compare the burdens others face, however, and you quickly will become lost. Each of us lives his or her own reality, one unknowable to others. Besides, there but for the grace of God you go.
Blindness need not be so bad, anyway. I know because I’m blind, and it really isn’t all that bad. I confront numerous problems of the practical sort, to be sure, but those practical problems have practical solutions. The discrete, concrete challenges of blindness are generally overrated by the sighted. As a blind comedian once said, “When you’re blind and lazy, people think you’re just blind.”
But I couldn’t see any of this when I could see. When I was diagnosed with my blinding disease at age 13, I would have disagreed with Helen Keller for an altogether different reason.
I had grown up with “normal” sight, and I was living a Hollywood fairy tale. A quasi-prodigy in school, I was a childhood actor on the side. Diaper commercial when I was six months old, about 150 more commercials as I grew up, big parts in small things, small parts in big things, then the lucky break: I was cast as series regular “Weasel” Wyzell on NBC’s cult sitcom, Saved by the Bell: The New Class. I had the world in my hands.
Then there was a long day of strange eye exams at the University of Miami Medical School’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, and afterward, a short conversation with its expert, Dr. W. He informed me that I have a genetic disease that causes progressive loss of sight and ultimately blindness. Dr. W couldn’t tell me how long it would take for me to lose my sight, but he did say there was no treatment or cure, and scientists knew little about the disease. Cold and clinical, he wished me the best of luck and went on his way in a matter of minutes. It was 1993, and I was 13.
Fear Fills the Void
I was terrified. Sitting in my mother’s car for the long ride home, I struggled desperately to make some sense of the news and to forecast the implications for my life. I hadn’t the slightest experience with blindness, no knowledge to draw upon, nothing by way of relevant information. No matter, fear filled the void.
We are creatures designed to find order in chaos, definition in ambiguity, certainty in a world of probabilities. We build up a vast database of experiences and design for ourselves rules and logic consistent with those experiences. We generalize, simplify, infer, predict.
The unknown is the domain that lies outside the database. By definition, we have no experience with the unknown and no rules or logic to understand it. That is why the unknown can be so problematic, especially in times of crisis.
Fear is familiarity’s phony. It passes off what you dread for what you know, offers the worst in place of the ambiguous, serves up anxiety in the absence of comfort, substitutes assumption for reason. Under the warped logic of fear, anything is better than the uncertain. Fear makes awfulized prophesies of our ignorance, and entices us to passively watch those prophesies fulfill themselves.
In my mother’s car, I knew blindness would ruin my life. It was a death sentence for my independence; the end of achievement for me; a guarantee I’d live a small, unremarkable, lonely life. Ahead was weakness, vulnerability, dependence. Because I’d neither love nor respect myself, no woman would. Fatherhood thus would elude me, for the better—no child deserves a blind father, and in a sense, I’d always remain a child myself. I knew all of these things, and many more. It was a baseless reality born of my fears, but it was my reality in that car that day, and for years thereafter.
Living fear’s reality, my life was a race against time, and I was on the sideline. I cheered for the brilliant researchers working to cure my disease, prayed they would outrun advancing blindness, insisted they would save me. Paralyzed by hope, I outsourced my destiny and watched with dismay and depression as the seconds ticked away.
Helen Keller could keep her vision. Nothing was worse than blindness. I knew it.
Shattering the Illusion
Then blindness opened wide my eyes. As my retinas progressively deteriorated, the passive experience of sight became something very different. For me, sight became difficult and exhausting, bizarre and frustrating. Objects appeared, morphed, and disappeared in my world as I consciously integrated clues and reasoned from evidence. I literally saw my mind’s indomitable efforts to produce for me an immersive “truth,” efforts that grew increasingly unhelpful and unreliable, until I could see nothing at all.
The experience shattered the illusion of sight for me. We say seeing is believing because we believe what we see. I learned, however, that far from “objective” or “universal,” what we see is a complex mental construction of our own making—one that both shapes and is shaped by our conceptual understanding, other knowledge, memories, opinions, emotions, mental attention, and many other things. Sight is a reality manufactured in the brain, unique, personal, fallible. It doesn’t feel that way, however; it feels “real.”
With that insight, other illusions shattered, too. The illusions born of my fear of blindness, born of misunderstanding strength and weakness, born of misperceiving luck and success, born of futile efforts to find refuge from the heart in the mind. Having glimpsed the wizard behind the curtain, I learned to recognize his hand at work throughout my life, in self-limiting assumptions, faulty logic, bias and prejudice, insecurity, vanity, surrender, and countless other places.
We create our own realities. It’s our ultimate power, and our ultimate responsibility. In every moment, we choose how we want to live our lives and who we want to be, whether we realize it or not. Blindness gave me the vision to see this, to make my choices with awareness and purpose, and to hold myself accountable for those choices.
It has brought me immeasurable joy, fulfillment, and success. I’ve served as a law clerk to two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, litigated appeals on behalf of the United States as a Justice Department attorney, built a successful Internet advertising technology business, and founded a nonprofit organization to fund scientific research. Today, I’m the proud father of four joyful, thriving children (triplets, plus one), the husband of a woman I admire and adore, and the CEO of a growing construction services company. I travel the world, sharing my eyes-wide-open vision with others, and I recently wrote a book called “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly” (TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House, March 14, 2017).
Going blind was a blessing, one of the best things that ever happened to me. I lost my sight, but I gained a vision. It was a winning trade. I’d take my vision over sight any day; vision is better—on that much, Helen Keller and I can agree.
Isaac Lidsky is CEO of ODC Construction, Florida’s largest residential construction services company, and author of “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly” (TarcherPerigee; March 14, 2017). An entrepreneur and speaker, Lidsky’s recent main stage TED Talk reached 1 million views in 20 days, and he was a keynoter at the recent Training 2017 Conference & Expo in San Diego.