When doctors first learned to treat cataracts, they ranged across Europe giving sight to the blind.
Many of their patients had been blind from birth, so for the first time, it was possible to study the initial experience of sight. One might imagine the first glimpse of the world to be miraculous, a dappled flood of color and light, like in the paintings of Monet, or perhaps vivid and magical like in a lucid dream.
The idea calls to mind myths of rebirth and the healings of Jesus. Instead, it was often a nightmare. Those once blind now glimpsed a world of grotesque distortions.
The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and essayist, Annie Dillard, relates that, prior to receiving their sight, the patients would tongue objects and roll them in their hands to get a sense of their form.
Little changed when the lights were turned on.
They continued, like spurned lovers crisscrossing the streets of memory. For many, the experience induced depression and a retreat from the world. One fifteen-year old boy begged to be taken back to the asylum in which he had been living, threatening to tear out his eyes.
But many embraced the change, swimming in a stream of wonder and the sunshine of delight.
Our lives are filled with phenomena we are ill equipped to handle. The information that inundates our brains, the appointments and deadlines that fill our schedules, even the words our eyes peel from the page, as if by second nature. All of this is as foreign to the biological equipment of humanity as sight to the blind.
While we may have the capacity to lead functional lives in an information-based economy, the effort wears and strains, for our nervous systems did not evolve to live in a post-industrial society. The human capacity for empathy was never meant to be extended to millions of people.
The world has become overwhelming, and it is revealing its contours as never before.
The billion malnourished people, tracked and traced through a wide array of transnational institutions, the ever accelerating extinctions, happening so fast they cannot be recorded, the churning of climate change, impossibly averaged through ten thousand temperature stations and millions of satellite readings daily…as veil after veil is torn away, and the natural and social sciences reveal a vast and variegated world of diversity, humanity oscillates between the poles of depression and joyful embrace.
The world has revealed itself, and we don’t know what to do.
It is like the climactic scene from The Bhagavad-Gita. The warrior and disciple Arjuna asks Krishna, who has disguised himself as Arjuna’s charioteer, to reveal his true form. Out of a sun spire of blinding light, Krishna explodes in a kaleidoscope of forms and amidst a shifting stream of phantasms, Krishna transmutes himself into the moon and stars, the Indus and Ganges, the beginning and end of all things, and all the armies of all the world, marching off to battle, only to meet their demise in the gnashing teeth of time. Like the formerly blind boy wanting to tear out his eyes, Arjuna begs Krishna to once more assume his earthly guise.
The physicist Oppenheimer is said to have quoted Krishna in the midst of this display, when he witnessed the explosion of the first atomic bomb. “Now I have become death”.
If it sometimes seems impossible to comprehend, perhaps it is because we are finally seeing it in its entirety—the subtle majesty of this lonely sphere, along with the trillions of beings of which it is comprised.
Immanuel Kant described the sublime as an aesthetic experience of overwhelming and almost terrifying beauty—the infinite and heaving waves of a turbulent ocean, the boundless firmament of the night sky. The sublime is an experience of awe and horror, blissful expansion and spine tingling wonder.
In contrasting the limits of human perception with the vastness of the universe, the sublime offers us a chance to see beyond ourselves.
Perhaps our experience of the world itself has become such an occasion for awe.
If there are many who now retreat in isolationism and horror—the terrorists, the romantics, the fundamentalists, and the morbidly apocalyptic—concealing themselves as if from Krishna’s devouring jaws, there are others who marvel in the sublime sight of an integrated world.
Indeed, the first step to taking on the great global challenges of the twenty-first century may be this willingness to simply face up to the immensity of it and to find the beauty in this new vantage point.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: ISKCON desire tree/Flickr