Today morning I was researching what is the minimum level of eyesight that legally allows you to drive, and coincidentally, Google chose to celebrate Otto Wichterle’s 108th birth anniversary today.
I am profoundly connected to Mr Wichterle, the Czech chemist who invented soft contact lenses, because I wore his invention from the age of 13 to 29 before my eyes dried up and became resistant to lenses.
The memories of those years overlap with many other difficult experiences in my life as a young Indian wife, mother and someone who had not quite learnt to see the truth of life and the purpose of her own existence.
At 30, I had a physical and metaphorical opening of the eyes. I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism and got Lasik eye surgery to correct my myopia so that I would never need contact lenses again. I also got my first full-time job and began to see that I was more than the roles I had been playing so far, largely confined to family and home.
Over the next decade and a half, my worldview and my existence went from one extreme to the other. I went from my ‘dark ages’, when I had been fumbling through a clouded existence, to being able to see with crystal clarity – both my mission in life and editing errors on my teammates’ computers from across the office.
But spiritual growth is not linear; it is dotted with twists and turns. You move two steps forward and then maybe one step behind or even sideways.
At the moment, life has brought me back a few degrees, by clouding my vision once again. My left eye has developed an epiretinal membrane (no known causes), and so my vision is about 6/9. Was it due to years of using contact lenses? Or was it the Lasik surgery 17 years ago? Or years of wearing mascara to work when I had an office job? Or generally reading books in the dark and at all times of the day for most days of my life, and staring at computer screens for the past two decades? No one knows.
What I do know is that I sacrificed eye health for many decades to live up to social norms of beauty, marriageability and employability.
I wore contact lenses for over 10 hours every single day even as a student and homemaker who – in an ideal world – should have felt free enough or ‘at home’ enough to just be herself but who instead saw eyeglasses as a sign of a ‘flaw’ and a huge liability in the ‘marriage market’.
I got the Lasik surgery to continue to keep up the appearance of ‘flawlessness’. By the grace of God, the surgery went okay and I could at least enjoy many years of clear vision when I had too many other struggles and ‘flaws’ in my life to worry about, such as being a single mother.
By then I had a desk job, and in the race to perform well at work – a race that has no finish line – I would slave away for hours on my computer, staring into the screen till 2 or 3 am without breaks, in a corporate culture that valued clocked hours more than employees’ personal wellbeing.
With the universe’s trademark ironical sense of humour, now when I have reached personal and professional milestones – when I work from home and at my own pace, when I have a loving partner, when my kids are grown up and safe, when I don’t feel the need to wear makeup or even dye my grey hair, when my spiritual, financial and emotional needs are being met, when I actually have a deep and meaningful relationship with God and we talk things out often – now at this point, I am being taught to un-see again.
The vision loss has slowed down some aspects of my work but it hasn’t deterred me from my mission. I have kept up with my writing, running a platform to amplify women’s voices, organising women-led summits, and my peacebuilding volunteer work.
But it is not so easy – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to come to terms with it and to go on with life despite it. I have to be really careful and 100 percent mindful while driving, editing, or even while walking in a new place with markings on the floor. (If you see a plump woman descending steps very slowly, or driving with her eyes comically wide open, or if you catch spelling errors in eShe, you know it’s me.)
Technology is a wonderful thing. I have a lot of respect for medical science and the longevity and enhanced quality of life it has gifted humans. But just like all other negative ways that technology is being used – to create weapons that kill people, to spread hate on the internet – medical technology is too often used to simply cash in on human insecurities and social stigmas.
I wish that, instead of getting addicted to Mr Wichterle’s invention, I had learnt to love my face the way it was – glasses and all – and to prioritise how I saw myself more than how others saw me.
In any case, all that is old news, and I must look forward now. That’s why I was researching if I can still drive legally with 6/9 vision.
And, yes, I can.
Let me quickly make the most of it. Who knows when the universe is again in the mood for some irony. Road trip, here I come.