In one of my classes each spring, we read Jorge Luis Borges’s essay “Blindness”—a brilliant meditation on the difficult gifts that blindness gave Borges. What some may call an inconvenience, Borges calls “a way of life” in which the blindness does not “intimidate me” nor is it a “total misfortune.” Rather, Borges credits his blindness as a necessary step toward him maturing as a poet and reader. Though his physical sight was lost, he gained a different way of seeing.
I’m reminded of Milton, whose greatest contribution to literature, Paradise Lost, was composed entirely after Milton became blind. Borges thinks of Milton, too, who “sacrificed his sight” before he “remembered his first desire, that of being a poet.”
Milton’s sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” is one of my favorite poems. In the poem, the speaker wrestles with an inability to follow a divine call, a “Talent... Lodged within me useless.” Due to his blindness, Milton feels unused and inept, but as the poem progresses we see a transformation in the speaker. Rather than “work” or “gifts,” God instead wants followers who “best / Bear his mild yoke,” who live with a burden, yes, but a burden that isn’t as heavy as we perceive. A burden that is, in fact, opportunity.
Then, that final, arresting line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The speaker is made mute, in a sense, before a divine voice that chides him for feeling as if he has nothing to offer.
In class, I had my students wrestle with the way these poets depict disability—an inconvenience, perhaps, but a space in which the person can be active rather than passive. A disability to the point of gift. As all teachers do, I had my students contemplate a question I selfishly wanted answered: how difficulty can somehow be a gift rather than a curse.
Whether we have disabilities or difficult seasons of loss, doubt, grief, depression or some other affliction, we all know that winter feeling, that “circumstance of ice,” as poet Danielle Chapman puts it. It is difficult to find a “gift” in these circumstances, and yet there is a kind of power in the waiting, in the wilderness.
I think of the Welsh poet-priest, R.S. Thomas, who hovers in a space of seeming nothingness in his poem “Kneeling.” The speaker kneels at the altar “waiting for the God / to speak,” just as his audience, the “close throng / of spirits” is “waiting, as I, for the message.” Interestingly, the speaker, the priest, waiting for his message to come from on high, asks God to not give it to him just yet. He knows “something is lost” in the translation, in voicing the message of God. Rather, on his knees, at the silent altar, the speaker realizes “the meaning is in the waiting.” His mind is stilled—he is not asked to do anything but be.
I’ve always thought of waiting as a passive thing. As a sign of inefficiency, uselessness, the lack of any sense of calling or progress. Waiting before a blank page, waiting to fall asleep when my mind is racing. But what if waiting is a space we are led into, difficult as it might be? What if waiting is a lens, through which we actively engage with the world? Waiting goes against the sense of busyness that pervades our culture: that we must always be accomplishing something, that pressing pause on life should bring a wave of anxiety. But as these poets remind us, can’t waiting be a way of seeing?
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