This is an exciting time in medical research. It seems like every time I turn around, a new headline heralds the imminent end of blindness. Stem cells, gene therapies, artificial retinas—with all the broad promise and breathtaking progress, surely there will soon be something to give blind people hope!
It’s an exciting time, all right, but I’m getting less and less excited about it.
I used to track everything, from active clinical trials all the way down to promising experiments on rats and mice. Recently, though, I’ve been losing track of what trial is in which phase, which ones are progressing and which are abandoned.
I’ve found myself, in general, less interested in a cure. And not just less interested—sometimes I feel outright squeamish about it.
Why? A cure for blindness seems like a cause without a downside. So much unnecessary pain and hardship could be prevented! Why wouldn’t I be interested?
Well, dear reader, keep going and I’ll tell you. This post is the first in a series, in which I discuss a number of my reservations about the prospect of a cure. The series isn’t meant to be balanced or give a full picture of my views; instead, I aim only to bring up a few points that are almost always left out of the conversation. The first post is personal, the middle two are societal, and the fourth gets almost philosophical.
Here is the personal: I no longer hope for a cure.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in despair. I haven’t gotten jaded because they always say the cure is “five years away,” just like they’ve said for the last fifteen or twenty years. What’s happened is, I’ve stopped placing my hope in the prospect of a cure at all, because there is plenty of hope in a life of blindness.
Hope is a slippery word. It always points to a brighter tomorrow, but beyond that it can mean a lot of things. There are different kinds of hope, different ways of imagining that brighter tomorrow and how it will get here.
There is a kind of hope that sits and waits and watches. It is a hope that sees help on the horizon, coming from outside at a time unknown to swoop in and make things better.
This is the hope for a cure.
But this is hope without control, and hope without agency.
I cannot control the pace of discovery, testing, or development. I can only watch and wait. And while I watch and wait, life will pass me by. Tracking the progress of research in expectation of a cure takes time and energy, and places my focus on something I can’t control. It distracts me from the life I am living now.
But there is another kind of hope: an active and engaged kind of hope, a hope that buckles down, digs in, and gets to work. A hope that says “with effort and determination I can get from where I am now to where I want to be.”
This kind of hope is described by psychologist C. R. Snyder as a cognitive process with three parts: goals, pathways, and agency.* This kind of hope defines a desirable end, plots a viable course to that end, and works hard to get there. This kind of hope finds new ways when the path is blocked, and continues to strive when the road is uncertain.
In case you hadn’t guessed, this is the kind of hope I prefer, and it has nothing to do with a cure. It is not hope that someone or something will swoop in and rescue me from my wretched existence, but the hope that I can make tomorrow a little better than today by my own careful planning and diligent effort.
It is hope that says life with out sight is not a tragedy.
I have come to see that life can be lived, and lived well, while blind. Those times before, when I would take a deep dive into research on retinal regeneration, came almost inevitably after I realized I could no longer do something the same way I used to, when I could see a bit better. What was I going to do? How could I keep on moving forward?
And yet, move forward I did, because the alternative was to fixate on the past, the things I had lost, and long for a solution that was out of reach and out of my control.
So I have chosen the second kind of hope, and I have chosen to focus my attention and energies on setting goals, finding ways to reach them, and putting in the work to get there.
And this has led, at least in part, to my squeamishness about a cure. It strikes in conversations, when someone mentions an article they saw, or a bit on the nightly news, and they express their joy at the hope this will bring to blind people. The hope that someday soon, my sight will be restored.
And I realize, with a sinking knot in my stomach, that the restoration of my sight is more important to them than it is to me.
Sure, it shows that they care. It shows that they want the best for me. But it also shows that they don’t know what is best for me. They talk as though blindness made life an inescapable misery and a cure were the only thing that could offer a life full of meaning and joy.
But I do not place my hope on a cure, and there are many, many like me—blind people who do not see blindness as an insurmountable obstacle. It is an inconvenience, a challenge, a target for prejudice and discrimination, but it can no more kill our hope for a good life than any other feature of our bodies or personalities.
There is already plenty of hope for blind people, with or without a cure.
* C. R. Snyder. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There From Here. Free Press, 1994.