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Tossing Aside the Blindfold

“In the eighteenth century, when educated European tourists visited the Alps, they deliberately blindfolded their eyes to shield themselves from the evidence of the earth’s horrid irregularity. It is hard to say if this was not merely affectation, for today, newborn infants, who have not yet been taught our ideas of beauty, repeatedly show in tests that they prefer complex to simple designs. At any rate, after the Romantic Revolution, and after Darwin, I might add, our conscious notions of beauty changed. Were the earth as smooth as a ball bearing, it might be beautiful seen from another planet, as the rings of Saturn are. But here we live and move; we wander up and down the banks of the creek, we ride a railway through the Alps, and the landscape shifts and changes. Were the earth smooth, our brains would be smooth as well; we would wake, blink, walk two steps to get the whole picture, and lapse into a dreamless sleep. Because we are living people, and because we are on the receiving end of beauty, another element necessarily enters the question. The texture of space is a condition of time. Time is the warp and matter the weft of the woven texture of beauty in space, and death is the hurtling shuttle. Did those eighteenth-century people think they were immortal? Or were their carriages stalled to rigidity, so that they knew they would never move again, and, panicked, they reached for their blindfolds?” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I think the point of Dillard’s quote, and the reason I chose it, was to highlight the imperfect nature of our time here, and the extraordinary capacity to receive and embrace beauty despite, or perhaps because of our awareness of the duration of the ride. We are active receivers of the ugly truth and the beautiful realization that life is a brief dance with wonder. Our version of modern blindfolds is of course a mobile phone with its infinite distractions flashing pretty images in our face. Do we truly see the rugged imperfections surrounding us when we’re a click away from something with ten million views just waiting for ours?

A man died of exposure on a trail I’m very familiar with over the Christmas weekend. The details haven’t fully been released but it appears he was unprepared for the elements, trusted his phone to guide him and light his way when it got dark, and perished when he lost the trail and his battery faded away with his life force. Friends or relatives on the other side of the planet alerted emergency personnel, who found him too late to save him. That mobile phone might connect us to the world, but it isn’t active connection to other people, just the illusion of it. Life is a fragile dance with beauty, and (it seems) his ended when he got too comfortable with that illusion in a cold and unforgiving place.

The thing is, that trail is one of the most beautiful and popular trails in the White Mountains. It’s easy to understand why he chose it. The tragic irony is that he received the beauty he sought in his climb, but his blindfold killed him in the end. It’s unfair to judge the hiker who perished, for at least he was out there trying to make the most of his moment (if tragically unprepared).

There’s a lesson for every hiker in his story. But isn’t there another lesson hidden in plain sight? For shouldn’t we wonder, how many others are slowly wasting their lives staring into their own blindfolds? We must be actively engaged in our lives to see the imperfect beauty surrounding us.

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