Sunday, November 14, 2010

Going Blind

No I am not going blind, but that laser shot that I took in my right eye as an undergrad didn't help any, but that's a different story. What I am talking about is going blind by looking at the sun. While this is not something I regularly do, or even do at all, it is something that happens occasionally to most people. Most people when they look at the sun they have a natural reflex that causes them to blink and to look away. This natural reflex usually prevents any major or long lasting damage to the retina. But occasionally people will look at the sun for extended periods of time and not realize that they are permanently damaging their eyes. Usually they do this when there is something interesting in front of the sun, such as a cloud, a planet or the moon. Sometimes with sufficient protection people can look directly at the sun and observe these interesting phenomena, but without adequate protection these short periods of solar investigation can cause serious or permanent damage.

It is for this reason that whenever there is a solar eclipse we are always advised to not look directly at the sun. When I was young I specifically remember two solar eclipses where I was very sternly warned not to look at the sun because I would go blind almost instantly. According to my siblings and classmates this danger was so severe that if we even looked anywhere in the general direction of the sky we would all be smitten with instant and permanent blindness. I distinctly remember walking through a grove of aspen trees during a family reunion being very conscious of the sky and mindful of the damage to my eyes if I so much as raised my eyes to even see the blue of the sky during the partial eclipse. Such was the power of the sun's rays during an eclipse (or so I thought) that even to see the blue sky was taboo.

I also remember a second experience where we all got out of class to go see the eclipse. Well, actually we didn't see the eclipse because we were all instructed in no uncertain terms that we were not to raise our eyes to the sky. Any young child who was so unfortunate to even see the blue of the sky would be instantly smitten with blindness, or worse, expelled. We had to use pin holes through paper to resolve images of the disk of the sun partially covered by the moon, and that was how we "saw" the eclipse. For the fortunate few who thought to bring very "special" sun glasses ($5 at Walmart) they could, for a very short time look directly at the sun, but for the rest of us unworthy folk we had to be content with our rudimentary pinhole cameras and look at the tiny images of the partially eclipsed sun.

Of course this was all overkill, because I would not have gone blind by looking at the sky, or even in the general direction of the sun, but I definitely would have if I had stopped to look at the sun for any extended period of time, which may have been significantly easier considering I had something interesting to look at, namely the eclipsing moon. But back then in my mind it was oh so very dangerous to even see the sky. For the more critical minded of us the obvious question was, "If we can look at the sun, even for an instant, and not have any permanent damage, why would it be more dangerous to look at the sun when it was being partially blocked?" A good question, to which the ready response was usually something like, "Because during an eclipse the corona of the sun glows brighter. Brighter even than normal, and brighter even than the whole sun normally does." This is of course hogwash, but so many of us believed it because we knew that under no conditions were we to look at the sun. To do so would bring about instant blindness, or so we were told. So we went on creating any number of "logical" reasons for why could not look at the sky, let alone the sun during an eclipse.

No matter how intelligent or informed the reasons seemed at the time, in retrospect they were all very foolish because they were all justifications for things we did not yet understand. For me and my classmates, our reasoning was sound, we could not look at the sun during the eclipse because corona was brighter, or the atmosphere made the part of the sun that was still visible brighter, or the light bent around the moon making the light from the sun more concentrated, or there were more UV rays during an eclipse because of the corona/atmosphere/moon/monkeys etc. In our minds it was all true and perfectly reasonable. What we failed to realize was the obvious answer, we were children and we didn't have a lot of common sense. Our teachers didn't want to have to deal with making sure that each child only looked at the sun for no more than one or two seconds, so they put the fear of God into us and told us not to look at the sun, or even to look at the sky. Can you imagine herding 30 kids (aged 9 and 10) outside and then making sure none of them were sitting there frying their eyes because they didn't have enough common sense to look away from the very, very interesting partial eclipse?

So of course they told us not to look at the sun, not because it would cause us INSTANT blindness, as many of my classmates kept insisting, or because the corona was especially bright during an eclipse, but because even though part of the sun was blocked by the moon, the rest of it was still just as bright and could easily damage our eyes. Normally us children would not sit there and stare at the sun, but suddenly we had a very good, and a very interesting reason to forget common sense, if we ever had any, and stare directly at the sun. What our teachers and parents were trying to protect us from was not the INSTANT blindness caused by the vast number of reasons we could think of, but rather the inevitable blindness that would result from too much curiosity and not enough common sense.

Perhaps if I had been older when I saw my first two eclipses then I might have had a different experience. Perhaps I may have seen through the clever arguments of my peers to see that they were just an ephemeral attempt to justify the hard-and-fast rule of "Do not look at the sun." If I had been the rebellious type I might have justified looking at the sun because the reasons my peers gave for not looking were unfounded and untrue. But this would have put me, or rather my eyes, in jeopardy because even if the reasons for not looking at the sun were entirely untrue, the fact remains that looking at the sun, especially when it is the object of curiosity such as during an eclipse, can be especially dangerous. This is not because of any increase in the amount of light but because I would override my natural instinct to look away and would slowly and steadily end up going blind.

Explanation:Now in writing this I could just leave it at that and I will have made my point, but because I always like to clarify what I write, I will continue writing and explain why I wanted to write about going blind by looking at the sun. My little story that I told about (not) seeing an eclipse is an analogy for morality. At times we are given rules to follow and they are hard-and-fast rules with little leeway. For those of us who are spiritually immature we may not understand why we are given these rules and we may even try to come up with some explanation as to why we should follow these rules, things like, "You'll be struck by lightning if God sees you!" or "The Devil will come and get you!" or "You'll be cursed with misfortune for the rest of your life." Most of these reasons rely on the assumption that anyone who breaks the rules will be instantly smitten with punishment and misfortune.

But there are those who hear these arguments and still "look at the sun" and break the rules. When no lightning bold is forthcoming they assume that the reason for the rule is silly and pointless and promptly assume that they can proceed to break every single rule and get away with it. What they fail to realize is that there was a reason for the rule, it just was not the simplified and instant reasons often given as justification. The true reason being to prevent very real and very permanent damage to ourselves or our souls. The instant lightning flash reasons for keeping the rules, aren't always the real reasons to keep the rules (sometimes the lightning does strike, but not always).

As in the case with the eclipse it is true that looking at the eclipse can cause blindness, it may not be the instant blindness like I was lead to believe in as a kid, but it will still be blindness just the same. Thus it is with the rules of God, if we break them we may not be smitten instantly or the Devil may not jump out from behind the next bush and drag us down to hell, but those who violate God's rules will be smitten (not necessarily by God, but in most cases by their own sins) and the Devil will come for their souls.

The most common result from breaking the laws of God is to be smitten with spiritual blindness and to be left to oneself to fend against the things of the world. And eventually those who do not progress and keep the commandments will lose that which they have. This is the meaning behind my story of "going blind".

1 comment:

Amy said...

Thanks for the interesting thoughts!