Read Old Man Scanlon

Deaf or Blind?

18 March 2009

One of my grandson's favorite games is to confront me with outrageous Hobson's choices. His latest was "Would you rather be eaten by ants or impaled on a growing bamboo plant?" The rule is, you have to choose, so I nixed the ants, but I'm still not one hundred percent sure about that answer. In retaliation today, his twelfth birthday, I tried to turn the tables on him with "Would you rather be deaf or blind?" He hesitated a scant heartbeat before he replied, "Deaf," as I would have when I was his age, and for many years after.

I haven't done a survey, scientific or otherwise, but my experience is that "Deaf" is the answer to this question more often than not. I knew a girl in high school who chose "Blind," so as not to be deprived of music, and Helen Keller was said to have chosen hearing when asked which single sense she would prefer to have restored. My sense is that these are aberrations, that vision gets way more respect than hearing. People see something in their mind's eye; they don't hear in their mind's ear. The saying is not "In the land of the deaf the one-eared man is king." One who achieves understanding says "I see." Beethoven's inner ear is distinctly rare. We are conditioned to treat hearing as a secondary, if not actually inferior, sense. Something this ingrained seems to me unlikely to have formed in a vacuum; it is easy to visualize the life of a blind hunter-gatherer as infinitely more nasty, brutish, and short than that of his deaf fellows.

My choice of evils today, after the passage of decades, would be "Blind," and I suspect that I'm not unique. It interests me greatly that my choice has changed. The change blindsided me — its possibility was inconceivable right up until it actually happened. In early life I was in easy harmony with my pro-vision bias. I read voraciously and learned best visually, having an unfortunate tendency to fall asleep in physics lectures. In the bargain, when I became diabetic during first grade, diabetes was the leading cause of blindness. Blindness was a major bullet point in anti-diabetes fund raising, and the major stick used to beat patients into better compliance with their treatment. Even after a half century of medical progress, all of that is still true. Other diabetes complications, like neuropathy, vascular disease, impotence, gastroparesis, kidney failure, and retinopathy are all abstract, can't-happen-to-me phenomena, but even a six-year old understands blind. Nobody wants to be Lear, smelling his way to Dover.

There were signs hinting at the change, possibly, had I paid more attention. I've been temporarily deaf in one ear two or three times over the years, and those experiences were disorienting and unsettling. My relief at hearing's restoration was greater than I might have expected. For a week in Germany listening only to German I experienced a sort of virtual deafness, and my elation at hearing the ambient language switch to English when I returned was unmarred even by the New York City accents.

Believe me, I'd be extremely reluctant to give up any sense, as beaten up by age and diabetes as it might be. I'm certainly not volunteering to be blind, just as I'd not volunteer to go to heaven right now, though due to my saintly life that assuredly would be my destination, were I to believe for an instant in the afterlife. I would miss the freedom to drive where I pleased, though it's arguable that blindness is no impediment to Massachusetts licensure. I would miss the sea of dandelions and violets in my back yard. I would miss Orion and watching vultures cruising for carrion. But I would still hear spring peepers and red-winged blackbirds, the surf at Burke's Beach, and my family's voices.

So why this unexpected age-induced vilipending of vision? I think the crux of the matter is that as we get older we do in fact get wiser. We value communion with friends and family closer to its true worth. So much of the meaning exchanged amongst people is audible, not visual. Deafness produces an isolation so profound that desire to avoid it trumps even our primal urge to see.