The speaker’s podium is lit up with a spotlight. A man is standing there, wearing the impossibly dark glasses that mark the blind. The man can smell the evening’s meal wafting through the room. The man can hear the sound of cutlery being placed gently on waiting napkins. The man can feel the expectation filling the room.
I know all this because the man is me.
I take a deep breath. I breathe out slowly. And, to the collective gasp of the room, I slowly pull off my glasses. I know my eyes are shining in an almost otherworldly way. I can feel it. But the glasses themselves had been no impediment to my vision.
As I look around the room, a warm glow shines from every chair and every table. It shines from the candelabras and the carpets. It shines from the forks and the knives. And it shines, most of all, from the people sitting at their tables. After so many years of blindness, I am filled with joy.
In this room, at least, I can see.
I clear my throat, and then I begin to speak.
“My friends,” I begin, because these people are my friends, “This is first time any of you have seen me without these glasses. But I’ve never explained why I’ve worn them. I’ve never told you the story of how I became who I am today. I couldn’t tell that story, until today. But now I feel you all deserve the know the origins of the work we do.”
I reach out clumsily and grasp a small glass of water. I can’t see the glass. I take a shaky sip from it. And then I continue.
“I was riding the subway in 2003. I was going to work. I was just like anybody else, that morning. I had a job, just like anybody else. I worked in an office, for a bank. I sat in front of a computer and I did magical things with Excel. I didn’t wear the glasses then.
“I was riding the subway, just like everybody else. But I felt empty inside. I felt like an automaton. Like I had to be fed and watered and rested but otherwise, I could work and produce and meet KPIs. For those who don’t know, those are Key Performance Metrics. Everything at the bank was KPIs. How quickly did you transform that Excel? How much data did your group process? How did the clients rate your work? How well did you pitch the market? I felt like a cog in a machine. And nothing more. I was empty.
“I remember a man looking at me. He was wearing dark glasses, just like the ones I wear today. I thought he was blind. But he took off those glasses and he looked at me. He looked at me in a way I had never seen anybody look at me before. It was like he was seeing something beneath and beyond my skin and my face and my hair. It frightened me. I looked back at him, wanting to challenge his intensity. He put his glasses back on. He got off the train. And I thought it was done. But then, 15 minutes later, my world suddenly changed. Almost everything vanished. All I could see was the other passengers, lit up like low-wattage lightbulbs. But everything else was gone.”
I pause and look around the room at the glowing people. I have no notes. I close my eyes and then open them again and smile.
“A little girl explained to me once that blindness isn’t like being in the dark. To the blind, the visual world is like radio waves are for you and I. They simply aren’t there. That was how it was for me. I could not, in any way, see anything but the floating lights of the people around me.
“I screamed then. I was so incredibly scared. I just broke down, screaming. In a moment, my world had disappeared. They took me off the train at the next stop. But I couldn’t see the platform. They rushed me to the ER. But I couldn’t see the ambulance. They poked and prodded and tested me. But I saw none of their instruments. All I could see was the dim lights of the people themselves. I tried to see myself, but even that was almost impossible.
“I was in the hospital for days. They tried theory after theory to explain what I was experiencing. They came up with new terms, like ‘sudden onset macular degeneration’. But they didn’t fit. They thought perhaps I had had a stroke. Maybe I did. But when I told them about the blind man who had looked at me, they ended up the only place they could. They decided I was suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown. They prescribed me pills. But when I took them, even the people vanished.
“My parents came in from Miami. And I heard them discussing my fate. The doctors were recommending I be placed in a ‘protected living’ environment. I understood the code. They were talking about an asylum. But I wasn’t a danger to others. Aside from being nearly blind, I wasn’t even a danger to myself. My parents, thank G-d, managed to get me released.
“I left New York then. They took me to Miami, riding in the back seat of a car I couldn’t see. I moved into their apartment. They lived in a beautiful glass tower in Miami Beach. They’d moved there to retire. They must have felt defeated, just then. They’d done everything right up to that point. I’d gotten an Ivy League education. I’d gotten a great job. They’d gotten me out of the house. They’d gotten me ‘launched.’ But, then, suddenly, I was home and they were caring for their adult son.”
I reach for the invisible glass and take another tentative sip.
“The apartment was beautiful. It was minimalist and clean. It was modern. But I couldn’t see a thing. Even my parents were dim. Well, actually, I could see one thing. They had a painting in the living room. I could see that. It was beautiful. I’d sit in front of it for hours. I’d look at it, wondering why – why I could see it and nothing else. But I never had any answers.
“I stayed in that apartment for three years. I never left. I felt crushed. I felt like a failure. Like a burden. Like my vision had been robbed because, in some way, I had deserved for it to be robbed. But then, eventually, my parents forced me out. They forced me to the beach and to the stores. They forced me to engage, with my other senses, with the world. I might have been blind, but I could smell and I could hear and I could feel. Somehow, I could find my way in the world. Others had before.
“They were right, of course. As they pushed me, they grew brighter. They grew brighter even through everybody else seemed to have been growing dimmer. That should have been a hint. But I didn’t really grasp it. All I knew was that that push was what I needed. I reengaged with the world. I learned how to deal with it. I even got a job. I could touch type perfectly. So, I started transcribing medical and legal records. I would sit and listen and type. For hours on end. But even as I worked and got my own feet under me, I felt like I was vanishing and I didn’t know why.
“My answer came in the most unexpected of ways. I went for a walk. I didn’t do that often. I was most comfortable at home. I knew where everything at home was. I even had my groceries delivered. But I had my dark glasses and my stick. And I started walking. I passed a store. I still don’t know the brand, but it was something luxurious. And I saw a handbag. A woman’s handbag. It was glowing. It wasn’t in the display window, it was inside the shop. So I bumped way through the store until I finally reached it. I picked it up and judging by the sounds around me, I made my way to the cashier. I asked to buy the bag.
“The cashier didn’t believe I really wanted to. She said, ‘uh, Mister, are you aware this bag is $1549 dollars.’”
“I wasn’t. The price was incredible. But I couldn’t admit I didn’t know it. I was embarrassed. Instead, I cracked a joke. ‘At least it’s on sale, right?’”
“I didn’t expect the answer got yet. The woman said, ‘well, yes…. It’s half-price.’ I knew she wanted to add ‘how did you know?’ but she held herself back from that.
“It was my turn to be confused, though. I was pretty sure I didn’t have special bargain vision, and the bag didn’t feel like a bargain even at $1549. So I asked, ‘Why is it on sale?’
“And the woman answered, ’It has an imperfection, the seamstress made a mistake on the inside lining.’
“I looked at the bag again. And I could see it. A distinct squiggle in the thread. It was the brightest point of all. So, I emptied my bank account and I bought the bag. I brought him home. And I stared at it, just like I had the painting. I could see it, but I couldn’t understand why I could see it. I remember closing my eyes then. And I remember praying, like I’d never prayed before or since. ‘Please G-d,’ I begged, ‘Tell me why?’
“But G-d didn’t tell me why. He left me satisfied with another answer. He told me what. In a literal flash of light, I suddenly understood what I could see. I could see the divine in everything. I could the divine in people. And I could see the people in the things they created. The modern glass towers were invisible. The people had been KPIed out of existence. The cars and the roads and the trains and the ambulances were impossible to see. But the painting and the bag marked by the rebellious seamstress – those were things I could see. They had been marked by their creators. They were not simply handmade – everything in that store was handmade. They were marked and made distinct by those who had made them.
“I had a choice then. I could have stayed in my apartment. I could have filled it with human-marked objects. And I could have seen what I needed to see. It wouldn’t have been a terrible loss. One man cut off from the world is not a terrible loss. I would have been happy staying there. But then I knew something else. I wasn’t seeing an illusion or a psychosis. I was seeing a reality. Just as regular people can’t see radio waves, regular people can’t see the divine in the world around them. It is invisible to them. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It doesn’t mean it can’t change their lives.
“I thought back over my years of blindness. People had been getting darker. All around me. I had thought the problem was my own. But I suddenly realized the problem was actually theirs. I quit my job then. And I started something new. I started the Mark.”
“The word ‘manufacture’ comes from ‘manu’ and ‘facture’ meaning hand made. But we’ve removed the human from this process. The seamstresses in Vietnam, the toy-maker in China and the assembler in Alabama have been made to vanish. You see perfect products, but not the people behind them. And I see nothing. The idea of The Mark is simple. It is not to degrade our products or our plenty by introducing the imperfections and expenses of handcrafting. The world can’t afford that. It is only to mark what people make. It is only to include the people in the work that they do.
“Today, I can see almost everything in this room. I can see you, shining. I can see the glasses and the cutlery and the tables. I can see all of this because of the Mark. Almost every product in this room has been stamped or riveted or sewn with a mark, by hand. It is roughly the shape of a stick figure. But, of course, each one is a little different. It is a little different because it has been applied, uniquely, by a person. Yes, it costs a little more, but it brightens every part of our world. You may not be able to see it. But trust me, I do.
I pause for a long moment. I look around the room. And then I continue.
“I want to thank you for spreading the Mark. One by one you were recruited to create sparks of light you cannot even see. You worked with designers and manufacturers to build people into their products. You encouraged the rejiggering of factories so individuals would work on more of each object – rather than simply pushing things down an assembly line. And you spread the Mark itself, encouraging buyers to look for it and to understand what was behind it.
“You have all worked tirelessly to bring a light to the world that you cannot see. But it is a light I know you can feel. It is a light that has spread to those in this room and to the world beyond. It is a light that has reinvigorated our world.
“The blind man on the train changed my life. He gave it meaning. Don’t worry, I have not done to you what he did to me. But, tonight, I wanted to help understand why – why the Mark has become the cause of my life. And why I believe it is changing yours.”
I look around the room. I put my glasses back over my eyes. And I step away from the podium.
In the Torah, gold represents the divine and silver represents the reflection of the divine. When the people are counted for the army in this reading, they are counted by the silver half-shekel. Of course, the silver half shekel is more than a reflection. It is called the shekel hakodesh – the holy shekel. It captures the divine in every person.
When I read the names and numbers that fill this Torah portion, I do not see a useless tallying of long dead people. Instead, because of the silver shekel, I see people, deserving of recognition before the Lord. Whatever their earlier shortcomings or later mistakes, they earned a place in His Torah and they earned our recognition.
By counting their half shekels, their holy half shekels, we recognize that they are not simply numbers to fill out an army. When they are at risk of disappearing, as members of military units, we make a special effort to recognize the divine spark within them.
I believe this recognition is the first step in our own fulfillment. When we can learn to see the divine in others, even those long dead, we fully develop our own souls. Only when we truly recognize that we are fashioned in the image of G-d, can we stand before Him and be counted.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 1:2 Lift up the heads of the witnesses of the children of Israel, by their families, by the houses of their fathers, by the numbers of the names, all males by their units.
Please use the comments to share your experiences in finding the divine in others.
image: emilio labrador, Flickr (and, yes, the story is fiction)