When asked about my experience of ninety minutes of blindness at the Dialogmuseum in Frankfurt, the word ‘eye-opening’ tumbled out of my mouth before I could realise its obvious inappropriateness. Searching for a more suitable alternative, I still found myself using terms such as ‘illuminating’ and ‘revealing’ – little better than my initial faux pas. Yet the fact that sight even governs the way in which we describe particular situations confirms the prevailing sentiment I felt during my visit to the museum: the ability to see is one of the most relied-upon and taken-for-granted gifts possessed by the majority of us.
It’s an obvious point, I know. But until you’ve been stripped of that fundamental function, it’s hard to appreciate the extent to which we depend upon our vision. As I entered the blackness, I suddenly felt incredibly isolated and helpless, even though I could hear – and very often feel, by prodding various body parts of my unsuspecting comrades – that there was always someone close by. The fear that I would suddenly encounter an obstacle, or walk into a wall, or become estranged from the rest of the group, never left me. There were ten of us in total; we came from all over the world and had never met previously, but I have never felt more grateful towards a stranger for checking my progress and helping me along.
Over the course of ninety minutes, I found myself becoming increasingly close to the rest of the group; admittedly, I did develop an embarrassing habit of grabbing people in inappropriate places, but above all I found myself continually concerned that we remained together as a unit – be it helping retrieve a stray wanderer, or calling out for help when I had gone adrift, I wanted us to get through it together.
In a world in which appearance can dictate a person’s success, in which friendships – even relationships – have a certain degree of superficial grounding, and in which facial expressions can make or break situations, it was liberating to enter an environment in which looks could play no role. At the end of the tour we never got to see our guide, who had been blind since the age of ten – and I’m glad it was that way. I appreciated him for the care and attention he paid to us on our tentative journey through what seemed like an abyss, for his positivity when we panicked that we had become separated, and for his self-effacing attitude towards a condition which, if my hour-and-a-half experience of blindness is anything to go by, must be hugely limiting. Would my precious memories really be enhanced by adding a visual supplement? I don’t think so. Maybe there’s something to be learned from shutting out the superficial; in doing so, we might connect more closely to the heart of the matter.