I’ve been doing a little light reading in C.S. Lewis, specifically his essay examining the futility of being (De Futilitate). He comments on the fact that all our understanding of and interaction with anything outside ourselves comes via our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
If this is true, then I don’t know anything that hasn’t first passed into my mind via my physical senses.
At one time or another—especially after encountering someone like Helen Keller—we’ve probably all asked ourselves which we’d find less objectionable: blindness or deafness. Both together seem terrifying, at least to me.
But what if a person existed who possessed none of the five physical senses? Could they have a relationship to the outside world at all? Any of the senses can be lost: my husband has a friend who suffered damage to his nasal passages, which has incapacitated both his ability to smell and to taste; and the disorder CIPA (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis) renders its victims unable to feel any nerve-related sensations.
I don’t think I can wrap my head around this thought exercise all at once, so I’m going to start with a healthy, five-sensed person:
A child is born. She learns to trust people when she feels hunger and is fed. She smells food and her tummy rumbles with pleasant anticipation. When she smiles people smile back. She learns how her body works, and that she can act upon the world around her. Her fingers grasp a toy and she brings it to her mouth to taste it. Her fingers drop the toy and it falls to the floor. She feels frustration when the world doesn’t behave the way she wants it to and the toy remains on the floor. She experiences kindness when someone picks it up and gives it back to her. She drops it again and again, and learns that the indulgence of others has limits. She grows and matures and learns to read and to ride a bicycle and to drive a car. She achieves independence and goes where she wants and does what she wants.
Then an accident or illness renders her blind. She can no longer drive, watch a movie or TV program, or see others’ facial expressions. If she wants to read, write, use a computer, or go somewhere alone she must learn and make use of accommodations like Braille, voice- and audio-enabled devices, canes and guide dogs. She will never again see light or colors, or witness anything with her eyes: a sunrise, nonverbal communication, a wave and smile from a friend across the room, the brilliance of the stars in the night sky. She wonders what the people around her are doing when she can’t hear them.
Another tragedy takes her hearing. Voices go silent, as do birds, crickets, phones, televisions, radios, washers and dryers, footsteps, laughter, singing, wind, and rain. Her world is black and soundless. To communicate with others she must use her hands, perhaps learning to feel the words formed on others’ mouths, or share messages in Braille if those around her will learn it. She can still speak, but has no feedback in her own ears about how she sounds—the formation of the words or their volume. The world becomes an even more dangerous place to travel alone: she can’t hear oncoming traffic or the shout to stop before she steps out in front of a car. People often touch her without warning because she neither saw nor heard them coming.
Next go her senses of scent and taste. She no longer smells breakfast cooking or the fragrance of a familiar cologne or perfume indicating that someone approaches. She can’t smell the rain or flowers or a wet dog or her loved ones. The familiar scents from her childhood—her mother’s hand cream, bread baking, fabric softener on freshly washed blankets—exist only in her memory now. When she eats food it satisfies her hunger but gives no other pleasure. She will never again enjoy the melting crumble of chocolate chip cookies on her tongue, the rich aroma and flavor of a well-seasoned steak, or the interplay of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter that may accompany a complex salad or roasted vegetables.
Finally, her nerve endings go dead and she can no longer feel. She cannot recognize when others touch her or when the wind blows past. She cannot feel the fur of a pet, or even know that it jumped onto her lap. There is no pain, no hunger, and not even recognition when she needs to use the bathroom. She may cut herself on a piece of broken glass, but will never know it. She cannot feel a hug or kiss, or even realize that someone has given them.
Is this woman still alive? Her heart beats and her blood flows. She has the same consciousness she had when her body was healthy, but she has no way to interact with the consciousness of others, so what kind of life could she have? Can she still hear her own inner voice? The voices in her memories? The voice of God?
Studies have shown that children who are not taught to communicate with others likewise do not develop an inner voice by which they learn how to learn and make sense of the world. Their brains are stunted. All the potential of life among others waits there, but no means exists for interaction.
I’m struck by the extent to which we are relational beings: in fact, that may be all we are. If we cannot relate to each other and to the world around us, what then is life?
You and I are interacting right now, as you indulge my thoughts to pass into your mind via this written medium. And you’re judging what you read, parsing out what you think may be true from what you find in error, based on all of your former interactions with the world up until this moment.
Will I convince you of anything? Maybe, maybe not.
But I think there is still a holiness to the fact that we have met here; that I have left something of myself with you, and you have shared with me a sliver of your time.
Maybe that’s what really matters.