“Just walk without your specs.”
Now why would I do that? I was in a volatile city in a foreign land, walking on a barely familiar path with someone I hardly knew. She had myopia, not as severe as mine, but she casually ambled along the pavement without lenses, completely unperturbed by the haziness of her vision.
I’d heard that people do some pretty crazy things in Jerusalem. There’s even a psychological phenomenon named after the city – the Jerusalem syndrome – where mentally stable people feel the inexplicable need to shout Bible verses, deliver sermons, wear white gowns, or single-handedly trigger the coming of the Messiah. Of course, staggering around like a blind bat was nowhere near the insanity of tourists suddenly assuming biblical personas, but it was an odd suggestion nonetheless.
The year was 2013. I was on an exchange programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I met some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered. My roommate was a religious American Jew who sat in darkness during the Shabbat (that was when I learned that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath). I attended lectures with a Japanese diplomat who had witnessed first-hand the turmoil of Mubarak’s overthrow in Cairo. I vaguely recall a middle-aged Ugandan man who spoke animatedly as he extolled the virtues of Kabbalah, the ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism. I distinctly remember my bewilderment when an American student railed about the “irresponsibility” of Israeli soldiers on the tram who had strapped their magazines to their rifle butts… instead of keeping their weapons loaded and cocked, ready to respond in the event of a terror attack.
But I spent most of my time with a Chinese student from Canada, the same one who had nonchalantly suggested that I walk the streets of Jerusalem with blurred vision.
“I can’t see a thing without my specs,” I protested.
“But you already know the way from campus to the accommodation block. Can you see the cars and pedestrians? That’s good enough.” Her reply was striking in its simplicity. But that changed abruptly as the conversation took an unexpected leap into the terrain of new-age spirituality.
“Just free yourself!” she exclaimed. “Why do you need to remain in control of your surroundings? Do you really need to see everything clearly?”
How did she turn a silly little dare into a philosophy lesson? Did I look like a Beatle sitting at the feet of the Maharishi?
Stunned and slightly amused, I let her words sink in. As outlandish as her remarks were, I admired the carefree attitude behind her words, which stood in stark contrast to my own uptight and cautious disposition. Maybe my hesitation really did indicate a need for absolute control over my surroundings. Perhaps I needed to embrace a tiny bit of insecurity? After all, hadn’t I already hopped on a plane to the Middle East completely alone?
I never thought I would engage in such deep soul-searching on the street. But those were the streets of the Holy City after all.
With straight back and puffed-up chest, I smugly removed my specs and made my way back without incident. Rather than feeling crippled by blurred vision, I felt unburdened, unencumbered, free. There was no bridge resting on my nose, no smudges to wipe off, no barrier between my eyes and the strange new land before me – a land I would soon make my home for two years.
It was an unremarkable event but it’s remained in my memory as a helpful metaphor for life. We will never completely understand the events in our lives, or immensely complex geopolitical trends, or even the innermost thoughts of our loved ones. The mundanities and vagaries of life coalesce into foggy obscurity. But we can still move forward. Naturally we’d like to have 20/20 vision all the time, but there’s no need to fret if we don’t have full clarity. We don’t need to know or understand everything.
It’s liberating to know that there’s freedom in the fuzziness.