I recently watched a movie called Blindsight about blind American climber and athlete Erik Weihenmayer and an expedition he leads, taking six blind Tibetan teenagers into the Himalaya. I thought it would be an uplifting story, and it was, ultimately – I think I can say that without spoiling the ending. First, though, I had to stomach the Western expedition guides’ (including Weihenmayer’s) testosterone and desire to summit at any cost. They seemed so caught up in the ego of how they would look as humanitarians by taking these blind kids high into the mountains that they seemed to forget the risks they were taking by leading these girls and boys – who had never held ice axes or rappelled before – above 20,000 feet.
The kids were all incredibly endearing in their own ways, and the filmmaker took care to share aspects about each of them and their families. However, it was tough not to look away from the one whose eyeballs lolled about uselessly in sockets, or the one whose eyelids appeared permanently closed, or the one who seemed to be missing an eyeball. It made me uncomfortable on multiple levels.
We Americans don’t often see kids like these. We easily ignore issues that are not broadcast directly into our living rooms – and we also easily ignore some that are. Because we do have so many doctors in America, even kids without insurance typically do not have to endure facial deformities and extreme eye issues. Some benefactor or foundation would feel sorry for American kids with these issues and pay for the corrective surgery. And indeed, kids from other nations are often flown to the U.S. to have surgeries as well, or doctors travel to perform operations for humanitarian organizations. And while I understand that this is a huge gift, I wonder if it is as much for “uncomfortable us” as it is for the kids. We live geographically isolated and geographically insulated, and that affords us many comforts.
It especially wasn’t easy for me to watch this film as the parent of a child who is under the care of a pediatric eye specialist. I wondered if the kids in the movie had ever even seen an eye doctor, much less a pediatric eye specialist. If my child had been born in Tibet, like these kids, she would undoubtedly be blind in one eye at the least, without the benefit of the treatment she’s been working through over the past several years. It isn’t easy to reconcile the guilt of geography or the happenstance of birth.
In Tibet, blindness is seen as a punishment or a jinx. Tiny ancient women passed these blind children in the street and yelled at them, “You deserve to eat your father’s corpse!” One woman claimed that her son was blinded when a serpent cursed him. Another blind boy lamented that he must have done something awful in his past life to deserve being blind in this one, but, he said, “I don’t think I killed anyone.”
I reveal this not because I want you to think that Tibet is a backwards medieval land, but because it shows the limitations placed on these kids in addition to being blind. Being blind in America is a disability, to be sure, but to be blind in an undeveloped country is an ostracizing karmic punishment. These kids are fortunate to attend a school for the blind, but it is the only one of its kind in all of Tibet. It was founded and is run by a blind German woman, Sabriye Tenberken, who created a Braille system in the Tibetan language and ultimately was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.
All of her accomplishments and what these kids did in the mountains and with their lives afterwards really got me thinking. It got me thinking about limitations, especially. How we limit others. How we limit our own potential because of our own belief systems. How society’s perspective of what is possible – or not - defines each of us. And how we can transcend all of this and have the potential to do – and actually succeed in doing – great things.
What does it mean to climb a mountain? Not a thing to the mountain. We look up to mountaineers like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay because they had the courage to try something that hadn’t been done before, and they succeeded. But as a lot of tragic mountain stories prove, a good many climbers become so obsessed with summiting that they ignore reason, warning signs, and true danger to themselves and others. A lot of them are reckless and take stupid risks.
So why do we admire them, in spite of their shortcomings? Why would I want to watch a documentary about something as improbable as six blind Tibetan teenagers attempting to climb above 20,000 feet?
It’s the lesson we learn from continuing the journey, even when it becomes difficult, even when we reach what we thought were our own limitations. It’s the sense that even a failed attempt can bring about a renewed sense of purpose, a fresh perception of self-awareness – or even an epiphany that is bigger than the mountain itself. In the end, what it takes to climb a mountain is tenacity. It’s putting one foot in front of the other, again and again, and again. And that’s it. Again and again, over and over. And that was what these six kids and their amazing teacher brought to my mind.
And really, isn’t that how we achieve each of our goals? Isn’t that how we soar beyond our own personal limitations? One step at a time. Again and again and again. Climbing a mountain is just like any other task. One word after another. One Braille character after another. One brushstroke after another. One brick, one stitch, one breath at a time.