No one who really knows me thinks much about my deviance. I mean, being blind and having a few friends—genuinely great ones—I see just how little vision loss means to them. I’m the guy who can’t see the baseball game and needs a radio. The one who’s lucky and gets to take his dog everyplace. Not a single one of my true pals says: “Now there’s a defective human.” At least not because of my blindness. We’ve come a long way where disability is concerned.
My boyhood neighbors, my parents, even my teachers didn’t like disability. They absolutely hated it. They’d grown up watching newsreels at the movies. In one famous short film from the 1940’s called “The Crippler” (a fund raising tool for the “March of Dimes”) unsuspecting children were attacked by polio, who appeared as a menacing shadow—a pervert at the playground’s edge. My parents believed disabled children were victims of malevolent forces.
Today we know better. Surely no one who meets a blind person on the sidewalk would say: “there but for the grace of God goes I” or “he must have committed some dreadful transgression in a prior life”—certainly not. So it’s peculiar when I meet a stranger who finds herself or himself driven by who knows what compulsion to say: “can I pray for you?”
This happens more often than one may think. It’s happened in multiple cities. It doesn’t matter what state of mind I’m in—happy, grouchy, dreamy, there’s no discernible synchronicity. This matters because if one was sufficiently superstitious or an over-the-top evangelical, one could imagine some kind of cosmic humility index—god has sent this unforeseeable man or woman to burst my little bubble of ego. (You were feeling grand walking on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and Lo! Now you’re reminded of your essential defectiveness. Moreover it’s a truly cosmic defect you have. Surely you must secretly desire salvation, most assuredly you should certainly want to get on your knees and pray for forgiveness right here on the street.
Of course blindness is a metaphor for a failure of spiritual vision: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see…” (“Amazing Grace”)
It’s possible I’m the only man in the world who’s not comforted by “Amazing Grace” since I don’t believe in blindness as metaphor. A person either sees or does not see. He’s also left handed or flat footed. Nothing about the body should ever stand for a failure of insight or perception.
Why do so many happenstance people think I need to be cured by prayer?
After years of mulling this over I’ve come to understand it has nothing to do with me. Basically when people see me they’re thinking of “Amazing Grace”—I’ve even had street corner saxophone players belt it out as I walked by.
I don’t want to be overly dismissive. Millions are comforted by this song. People need comfort and I’m not a “comfort Scrooge”—I’m no ham fisted atheist tearing at the curtains of believers.
In fact I’m an Episcopalian (American, gay friendly) and I love what we call “the smells and bells” of worship.
Once I tried to explain my deep antipathy to religious metaphors of blindness to a priest who told me I was merely angry and vain. “Maybe,” I said, “but if that was true I wouldn’t feel so peaceful when I say it.”
I’d like to ask all strangers to pray for themselves. I’d do so with absolute calm. The trouble is, I need to write a song.