Review: The Mind’s Eye

the-minds-eye

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. New York: Picador USA, 2010.

Summary: Narratives of those who because of optical or neural issues experience distortions in or loss of sight, and how they adapt to such losses.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks left us a series of narratives of neurological impairments and how people with these adapted to life. In this volume he considers cases of visual impairment or loss, describing both a collection of different impairments, some in the eye, some in the brain, and how real people have adapted to losses or changes in this seemingly essential sense.

He begins with a concert pianist who loses her ability to read music. She could remember pieces and play them with perfection, and yet could not make sense any longer of musical notation. In this, as in other narratives, he wrote eloquently, and with admiration of her adaptation:

“Lilian had been ingenious and resilient in the eleven or twelve years since her illness started. She had brought inner resources of every kind to her own aid: visual, musical, emotional, intellectual. Her family, her friends, her husband and daughter, and above all, but also her students and colleagues, helpful people in the supermarket or on the street–everyone had helped her cope. Her adaptations to the agnosia were extraordinary–a lesson in what could be done to hold together a life in the face of ever-advancing perceptual and cognitive challenge. But it was in her art, her music, that Lilian not only coped with disease but transcended it. This was clear when she played the piano, an art that both demands and provides a sort of superintegration, a total integration of sense and muscle, of body and mind, of memory and fantasy, of intellect and emotion, of one’s whole self, of being alive. Her musical powers, mercifully, remained untouched by her disease.”

In succeeding chapters, he describes a patient with receptive aphasia resulting from a stroke, a man who no longer could decode letters into words and sentences, even though he could continue to write them, the challenges of those who are face-blind, a woman who through therapy, achieves stereoscopic vision for the first time in her adult life, and how this changed her perception of the world, and what happens within the brain when a person becomes blind and yet continues to have a “visual sense” of the world– a “mind’s eye.”

Perhaps the most moving was the description of the author’s own experience of visual distortion due to a form of melanoma and eventual loss of stereoscopic vision with retinal bleeding in one eye. He describes the changes in his own perception of the world, his loss of a sense of the existence of half of his visual field, and how he personally adapted to this loss.

Like other books by Saks, he brings together the fascinating world of neuroscience, and the marvelous uniqueness of the human beings whose stories he tells. He helped me marvel at the sense of sight that I take so for granted, and yet could change or be lost for a host of reasons (I need to make that eye check up appointment!). And he helped me appreciate the tremendous ingenuity of individuals, and the fascinating properties of the brain, that enable people to adapt to devastating loss.

Double Vision

IMG_2270Double vision. We usually do not consider this a good thing. A friend of ours suffering from MS could not drive for a period of time because of problems with double vision. Double vision resulting from crossed eyes (strabismus) in children is treated surgically as early as possible so the brain does not become accustomed to seeing double.

At the conclusion of our pastor’s message this week, our pastor spoke of the importance of a certain kind of double vision that not only appraises and celebrates where God has brought us thus far, but also looks to the future and the good that God might do among us. His message was a kind of “review” for our congregation that explored both where we are, and where, under God’s grace, we might go.

I was also struck that there is another kind of “double vision” that was evident to me in this message. It is the double vision that looks both at our congregation and our community. I was grateful for the reflection upon each and the model of “watchful brooding” over both, the kind of watchfulness shepherds exercise that watches both the flock and the surroundings, both for good pastures and possible threats. Here are some of my own responses to each:

Congregation (Who We Are): One important insight that Rich shared was our “highly-leveraged” character. For the most part, it is not a challenge to get us to “do more” and I am grateful that this is reflected in a recognition that we don’t need to add more things to our programming or congregational calendar. Most of us see our “ministry” as something that happens outside the church walls and our impact isn’t necessarily reflected in church growth so much as in the various workplaces, organizations, and informal networks we work in. There is a kind of hiddenness in this that seems attractive and is contrary to the ABC of “attendance, budget, and campus” that serves as the metric of success in American Christianity.

Two reflections in this regard: 1) It might be fun to “map” our involvements and explore the question, “if this is how God is gifting and calling each of us, how might he be calling ALL of us?” 2) It seems that what happens in our gatherings on Sundays, in Life groups and other gatherings in some way sustains and equips us for a good deal of ministry on the outside.  What was shared about having a “contextually appropriate strategy for deepening the spiritual transformation, the growth of discipleship” for our congregation really makes sense!

Community (Where We Are): I so appreciate the continued dreaming our pastor and so many are doing about serving the community that is northwest Columbus now. We have a Governance Team that really serves us well! One interesting insight for me, though, from the message, is that our building and property really is a key interface between our congregation and the wider community.

What is real for the community that encounters us is a place located at 7260 Smoky Row Road. It is a place where food is stored and distributed by caring people. It is a place where students, who traditional schools have been unable to help, have another alternative. It is a place where people grow fresh food while children play on our ark. It is a place where singers rehearse in our worship space, using our chairs and piano and lighting, while glimpsing the tangible signs of our life together as they come in and out. It is a place where people vote, and experience welcome as they do so.

So, while it doesn’t seem glamorous and seems “institutional” to pay attention to buildings, what struck me from what Rich shared is how many “flesh-and-blood” human beings interface with our congregation through the building and grounds at Smoky Row. As was noted, we’ve made lots of headway over the last years in improvements. But this realization also helps me see how urgent it is to pray for someone with the skills and passion needed to lead our stewardship of this place God has given us that is such a crucial interface with our community.

I’m moved by this message that as I pray for our church, I need to pray with “double vision” not only with regard to our past and future, but also with regard to praying both for our congregation, and for the community in the midst of which we gather and who we are called to serve. Our pastor gave us a great model of paying close attention both to what is going on inside our church and in our community. I hope I can imitate that as I pray for our life and mission.

These are the things that particularly encouraged and challenged me. How about you?

Going Deeper Questions: If you are from Smoky Row, what most encouraged you and what most challenged you from Rich’s message?

If you are someone else following the blog, what would it mean to have “double-vision” for your church and your community? What do you see as you look at each in your context?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper blog.