Helping Us See More Clearly

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Which is better, ‘a’ or ‘b’?
— just about any optometrist

At the age of seven I started at a new school.  It was a small school, converted from a large house where the headmaster’s family still lived in an apartment and occupying several buildings on the grounds as well.  Students attending from start to finish were there for six years, with one class of about twenty students in each year.  About a quarter of the students (including me) were boarders, who came to school on Monday morning, stayed during the week and then went home again on Friday afternoons.

A couple of months into my first year there, the teacher for our class was reorganizing the students in the room, perhaps by that time having figured out what each of us was like and who she needed to keep an eye on more closely!  Until then I’d had a desk right on front of the chalkboard, but as part of the shuffle I now found myself with a desk in the back corner of the room.  As it happened I was next to the bookcase that held the class library, which I liked, not to mention having the room’s one radiator right behind me, which was very nice as the weather got colder!  But I also discovered something else.

I couldn’t see the chalkboard.

Well, I could see the board itself, of course.  It was a big, dark blob on the far side of the room.  But I could in no way see anything the teacher wrote on the board.

I thought this was rather odd.  After all, I used to be able to see the chalkboard when I was sitting right in front of it.  And I could see what was on my desk just fine.  But when the teacher asked me to read something she’d just written on the board, I had to tell her that I couldn’t.

I think the teacher must have told my parents that they should get my eyes checked, since I don’t think I had any idea about what needed to be done.  There was another boy in my class who already had glasses, but I’m not sure I really knew why he wore them.  At that age I didn’t know anything about the optics of lenses or the anatomy of the eye that makes vision possible and why mechanical assistance was sometimes needed.  (Later in that school year the teacher dissected a cow’s eye for us, but the main thing I remember is it being very messy and dripping who-knew-what everywhere.  It would be another six years before short- and long-sightedness were actually explained and demonstrated in a physics class.)

From that time on I’ve occasionally wondered about people who, centuries ago and in societies without knowledge of optics or anatomy, had to get through life without being able to see clearly.  As a child I didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it, and apparently hadn’t even realized I couldn’t see in focus more than a foot or two away until the teacher had asked me to read from the chalkboard.  Thankfully I had my teacher and my parents, but there must have been people who spent their whole lives that way — and likely still are in impoverished parts of the world today — because not only did they not know what to do but nobody else knew, either.

While our society has the knowledge and the means for people to get corrective lenses in order to see more clearly, there are plenty of other times when our vision — our understandings of self and others as well as our imaginations and aspirations — suffers because not only do we not know that we’re not seeing well, but nobody else tells us when our vision is impaired, either.  We can quite happily pursue some course of action, convinced that it’s the best thing for us to do, only it turns out we missed some small but important fact or detail that makes all the difference, something that someone else could have given us.  This, for me, is one of the best reasons for being in community with one another, to be in an on-going dialogue that provides those small but important facts and details that are so essential for providing course corrections, for helping us see more clearly, for keeping us human.

The full statement of our Unitarian Universalist Principles includes a list of the Sources that inform our living tradition: personal experiences of wonder and mystery; the life stories of inspiring people; the world’s religions, including Biblical teachings; the humanist way of scientific knowledge; and Earth-centered traditions.  Immediately following that list is the following declaration: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.”

It is precisely when we recognize the importance of difference, when we open ourselves to the wisdom that others have but we don’t, that our own vision grows more clear.  Everyone who becomes a part of our community brings with them a rich collection of experiences and learnings and truths, any one of which might be that small but important corrective to our own imagination.  Let us live the promise of that pluralism and help one another to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.

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About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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