Sense and Nonsense: On My One-Eyedness

Milton, I believe, wrote an essay on his blindness. This essay will not be so poignant nor so profound, but it will deal with seeing and not seeing with our very eyes. The difference between being blind and having one eye, as I have recently learned, is in a way infinite. If you have one eye that functions well, you see. You are not half blind even though you do not see with the range that you do with two eyes.

At the end of July, I was strolling across the bridge on “M” Street as it goes out of Georgetown. I noticed some sort of blotch in my left eye. Even I knew it was not normal. After supper that night—it was a Saturday—I was sitting on our roof-garden overlooking the Potomac and I noticed that everything had become cloudy and obscure. I talked to a friend of mine who is a good nurse. She told me to get to the emergency room of the hospital as quickly as possible.

I did this. I got there about eight o’clock. They had to find the two young women doctors on call; one was swimming but rushed right over. By midnight, I had been diagnosed with a torn retina and some bleeding. The next morning, I was given a laser treatment. A couple of days later, I was at lunch down on 18th Street, when I noticed that I could not see a darn thing out of the same left eye. So I go back to the doctor. He tells me that the eye is very full of blood. Evidently a vessel had broken. He decided to wait to see if the thing would not clear by itself.

So we waited a couple of months and nothing cleared. They recommended a vitrectomy, a sort of pumping out of the fluid in the eye in which the blood was blocked. Once into this operation, it was discovered that the blood cells in the meantime had formed a membrane on the retina. Some of these were cut off. However, about a week later, it appeared that the retina was detaching. This required an emergency operation on a Saturday morning. The eye was given a buckle to hold the retina. However, neither of these operations seemed to do what was anticipated—during the process I learned a lot about the prayer, “Lord, that I may see.” My local doctors seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. I suggested we should go elsewhere, maybe Johns Hopkins or the Wills Eye Clinic in Philadelphia.

Thus, on a Thursday, I found myself facing a third operation in about three weeks. Again I had to arrange for my classes to be taken care of—I really learned to appreciate generous colleagues and friends during this period—to call my family in California, to prepare my soul for yet another bout. The operation was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Baltimore, where there is a retina center. The new doctor seemed to be really a wise practical man, that kind of common practical sense that knows about particular problems and difficulties such as I was having. The new doctor did not say much. I asked him what my chances of seeing were with yet another operation. He sort of grunted and told me that he didn’t give percentages. He said that if he did not think he could help, he would not do anything. This was fine with me, the sort of good sense that I needed.

So the third operation. The retina is again re-attached, some blood removed, things adjusted. Will I see again? Well, maybe something. The lens was removed on the third operation, which means eventually I’ll need a contact lens, once the eye settles down. As of now, I see very little, some shapes. This is what I can expect so far. The eye is a tough organ I am told, but you have to let it heal.

Now, I know that listening to or reading about other folks’ operations is not always the most exciting of topics. My eye is mine, so naturally I would like it to see what it can. The other eye seems to function all right and effectively; I have been operating with one eye since July. You can do it. Lots of folks have one eye and get along fine. I know that.

After the first operation, I managed to go back to class for a day before they bombed me with the second operation for which I had about two hours to prepare. I told the class of the situation—before, you could not tell there was anything wrong with the occluded eye. After class, one young man came up and put his arm on my shoulder and told me, “It’s OK, Father; I have had one eye all my life. You’ll be fine.” I was rather struck by that, I must say. I have a nephew with one eye, aunts with detached retinas, so I am aware of this situation.

A couple of days after the third operation, I was still in the hospital in Baltimore. I was on a floor with eye patients and others who had quite an assortment of illnesses. I really was in no mood to wander about. Nurses in a hospital attend to you when you need something—water, eye drops, pressure-taking. The last nurse I had was really very good. The old gentleman in the same room was awaiting tests, so he was just a bit worried. The nurse said to me, “Oh, Father, you are the least sick on this floor, so I get to you last.” Naturally, I thought I was practically dying; my head hurt; I was uncomfortable. But I knew she was right.

I said to a friend, “I learned from this experience that I am not a good ‘sufferer.’ ” She laughed and assured me no one was. That was the whole point of pain and suffering. On the other hand, I remembered what I had been going over with my class from Aristotle, that pain or fear is something given to us, over which we have some control, more or less; that we should learn to rule it, somehow. And I remembered that I am a Christian. You are given suffering for others, too. You realize that all sorts of people are praying for you. I asked my class to pray for me before I went to the hospital the second time. One girl wrote a note to tell me she said a Buddhist prayer for me. You too often forget all those for whom you ought to pray. If there is suffering along the way, that too is to be incorporated into our prayer.

In the meantime, you wonder if you will ever see much with the left eye again. You don’t really know. The last time I had been in a hospital was when I was about five or six, to have my uncle remove my tonsils. I figure on the whole, I have been pretty fortunate. I was the least sick on the floor, and having one eye is a blessing.

It says somewhere in Scripture, “If thy eye be lightsome, the whole body will be lightsome.” It is true. Our eyes like our other senses are given to us that we might perceive what is not ourselves. If your eye is working well, you do not even notice it. If you notice your eye as an organ, it is because something is in it which should not be there. Why do we see at all? It is, I think, that our whole body be lightsome.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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