'Country of the Blind' and integrity of life

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 3, 2004

From time to time we meet a story that moves into our hearts and minds as a permanent – and very welcome – guest. Its mission: to keep us mindful of who we are and what we're about in this life.

One such guest with whom I've enjoyed "sipping coffee" over the years is H.G. Wells' classic short story, "The Country of the Blind."

As you may recall, "The Country of the Blind" tells of a mountaineer in Ecuador who survives a fall one day from high up in the Andes, struggles to make his way down the slope, and chances upon a mysterious, isolated, walled-in village in a valley.

The village is remarkably tidy, but not one of the houses has windows. Greeted by townsfolk with closed and sunken eyelids, he soon realizes everyone here is blind, and has been for many generations. They have adapted their entire lifestyle to the ways of blindness, and have no notion of the sighted world beyond the wall.

Even the language of sight makes no sense here, and anything the stranger does to demonstrate sight becomes suspect, ridiculed, and used against him by his initially gracious – then increasingly hostile – hosts.

Things go from bad to worse when he fails in a coup attempt motivated by his muddle-headed interpretation of a saying, "In the Country of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king."

He flees outside the wall, but after a few days without food and shelter, he returns to the village, announces he had been out of his mind, declares that there really is no such thing as seeing after all, and throws himself at the mercy of the villagers.

He settles down in the Country of the Blind, becomes a citizen, eventually falls in love, and proposes marriage. But the elders will agree to the marriage only if the stranger consents to an operation on his eyes to make them like those of the rest of the villagers, since obviously the present condition of his eyes must be affecting his brain.

He pleads to keep his sight, for there are so many beautiful things to see: flowers, sunsets, the stars, and even his beloved. But she argues that if he really loves her, he will go through with the surgery.

As the time approaches when he will forever lose his sight, he goes outside the village for one last look at the natural splendour all about. And he walks, and he keeps walking, never again to return to the Country of the Blind.

This story has a special significance for me: it is a reminder to hold fast to our glorious vocation as human beings.

As such, it shares in the core values of authenticity and perseverance that underlie two Hollywood films that grabbed headlines this past weekend: Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which dominated the 76th Academy Awards, and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which dominated the box offices.

Both films deal with the intimidating onslaught of darkness. In The Return of the King, Frodo Baggins refuses to surrender to exhaustion and the power of the ring in his quest to save Middle Earth. In The Passion, Jesus refuses to surrender to his own survival in his quest to save humanity.

Concerning Gibson's film in particular, Jesus' ultimate act of integrity was a refusal to deny his own identity. It could not be agonized out of him in the garden nor beaten out of him at the pillar. It could not be humiliated out of him in a mock coronation, nor exhausted out of him while carrying the cross. Nor could it be dispirited out of him while on the cross.

And when all the world shouted, Give in, Jesus whispered back, Never! For his vision was not limited to this life only, nor was he prepared to live a falsehood for the sake of expediency.

So in the spirit of H.G. Wells' story: Before the final darkness overcomes us, we step outside the Country of the Blind for a moment to indulge one last time our failing memories of sanity and true beauty. We examine our hearts, we open our eyes, we rediscover our birthright of true joy and freedom. And exulting in that light, we walk, and we keep walking as people of heavenly vision.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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