“When you’re blind, you just can’t assume anything.”

That’s a quote from a guy named Ryan from a story on RadioLab podcast #464 called, Invisible Made Visible. Ryan is blind. His job requires him to travel alone, so his routine is to call his wife as soon as he arrives in his hotel room, to let her know he’s safely at his destination.

On one particular trip, Ryan has trouble locating the phone in his hotel room. He feels along the walls and finds a nightstand but there’s no phone on it. On the other side of the bed, Ryan stumbles upon another night stand, but there is no phone there either.

Ryan slides his hands along four walls until he returns to the bed. Two more times he circles the room, sliding his hands along the walls, but is not able to find a phone in the entire room. He finds a coffee table across the room, but again, no phone. Eventually, Ryan gives up, finds the bed, and goes to sleep without talking to his wife.

The next morning, the ringing of a nearby phone wakes him. Half asleep, the blind man crawls and gropes his way toward the sound until he discovers a phone on a coffee table. Last night there was no phone on his coffee table, but apparently there is now. He explains his situation to his wife on the phone, then hangs up the phone and turns to go back to bed.

But there is no bed. Instead, Ryan hits a wall. From the night before, Ryan remembers that the coffee table was directly across the room, but after multiple attempts to retrace last night’s steps, he repeatedly runs into a wall that was not there and near a table with a phone that was not there. Ryan becomes so disoriented that he touches the wall repeatedly, as if maybe this time it will not be there too.

It took some time and some moments of panic, but eventually, Ryan discovers that the phone he answered was on a coffee table inside an alcove near the bed. He was staying, not in a square room, but in an L-shaped room.

The night before, during his many trips around the room, Ryan had carefully felt his way along the first three walls, but as he reached the corner and turned along the fourth (and presumably final) wall, he stopped reaching to the sides of walls, and started reaching ahead for the bed he knew to be in front of him. Each time he did this, he walked right by the alcove entrance on the way back to the bed, the alcove with the extra coffee table. The coffee table with the phone on it.

I don’t know what it’s like to be physically blind, but I do know (we all know to some extent) that feeling of panic, when we wake up in the middle of the night in a hotel room or as a guest in someone else’s home.

We sleep-walk to our bathrooms, only to find ourselves in strange closets or hallways. Some of us get shocked awake by the edge of a door or wall. The common thread is that brief but terrifying moment of realization that this is not a dream. Our surroundings really are different from what we believe.

Ryan said his main problem is not with his blindness, but with the embarrassment that sometimes comes with it, that potential of being in a similar situation, only in a room full of people.

Here’s the rest of his quote:

“The problem is, you get a picture in your mind, and if you get it wrong, you just live inside the mistake.”

Living inside the mistake… I used to say that I’m glad I’m not blind, but now I think that’s a presumptuous, borderline arrogant statement. The assumption is that I’m the one who can see. I was just as wrong as Ryan, when he became so convinced he was inside a square room, that he stopped feeling his way along the fourth wall.

Maybe we only start to see when we’re willing to admit that we don’t see it all. To steal a line from the band, Enation, I know I’m blind, I can see it. Maybe that’s what vision is!

I met my first blind person when I was a kid, during a visit with some family and friends. There was an old lady I’d never met before, and she kept her eyes closed the whole time we were there. I was not surprised that she was blind, but I remember being surprised that she was happy. I didn’t understand what a blind person could be happy about.

The other adults there talked about trips they had taken and how beautiful this place and that place was. Then the blind woman told about a trip she and her husband took through the southwestern US. She talked of how beautiful everything was, and of her fondness for the shapes of clouds. When someone mentioned her pretty pink hat, the blind woman spoke of how much she loved the color pink. It was her favorite color.

Someone asked how long she had been blind. She said she was born blind. I didn’t know how to act or what to say, but judging from the expressions in the room, I wasn’t alone. Finally someone was bold enough to ask how she knew about the beautiful things she’d never seen, like clouds and colors.

She said, “My husband shows me. One time he piled cotton balls on the kitchen table and placed my hands on the pile. He said, ‘Remember the clouds we saw today? This is what they looked like.’ Then he told me to pick up one of the cotton balls and play with it. When I did, he said I was feeling the color pink. That’s something he said he could never do.”

Remind me again who is living inside the mistake, and who is not. I keep forgetting.