Doyouseemenastrees? Reflections on Mark 8:22-25

(This is Part 2 of a series on our recent trip to Clinica Ezell in Montellano, Guatemala. Part 1 can be found here. The following are remarks that I delivered to the HTI Eye/Ortho Team on March 17, 2010 during evening devotional).

First off, thank you Cameron for having my back tonight. He loaned me his Bible after I forgot mine.  I didn’t want to stand up here and scroll through my Bible app on my iPhone–I thought that would look, uh, “unprofessional” (pointing to my Bama ball cap and scrubs).

I just want to clear up one more thing before I get started. I know some of you are probably confused by this whole optometry/ophthalmology thing. The easiest way to think about it is this: Me (pointing to myself) primary care, him (pointing to Dr. Lee Coleman) surgeon.

But the biggest difference between optometry and ophthalmology is this: I personally have no problem projecting my voice over the sound of rotating ceiling fans! (The audience, immediately recognizing the inside joke, erupts in peals of laughter in appreciation of the wit and alacrity of their speaker).

I’ve enjoyed getting to know all of you this week as we’ve formed this team to help the people of Montellano. I’ve noticed that as we’ve tried to get acquainted with each other, we’ve asked the usual questions: What’s your name? Where you from? What do you do (or what’s your major)? Do you know so-and-so?

Or, if you want to go a little deeper: What’s your favorite scripture?

Ask me that question, and I’m likely to reply: It depends.

If you’re talking about my favorite single verse of scripture it would probably be Micah 6:8, you know, the one about “practicing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.” There are so many people quoting scriptures these days–preachers, politicians, athletes, pundits–and frankly many of them are more concerned with scoring ego points or gaining power and manipulating people than they are in getting it right.

This one’s hard to mess up. It follows the K.I.S.S. principle–“Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Perfect for someone like me who needs a little help every now in figuring out what’s True and Important.

If you’re talking about my favorite book, then it would have to be Ecclesiastes. I know, a little weird. Ecclesiastes is the most philosophical and existential book in the Bible, and since I’m a little edgy and angst-ridden myself, it suits me to a tee. Nice to know there’s a whole book devoted to oddballs like me!

But maybe by favorite scripture you mean “favorite story.” That’s what the Bible is, after all: small stories within a larger one, a grand narrative of man seeking God, God seeking man, and His interaction with creation. It’s not a list of rules-to-be-followed, like the step-by-step instructions of an inorganic chemistry titration experiment. It is a story “in progress,” one in which we are all participants.

If that’s what you mean by “favorite scripture,” then it would have to be Mark 8: 22-25. Let’s read it:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Okay, there’s one thing that pops out to me right away: Spit in the eye?  Hellooooo, does that sound like a sanitary method to treat eye disease to you? Let’s ask our sterilization team (pointing to Jonathan and Terri).

Doesn’t Jesus know what germs lurk around inside our mouths and on microscope slides? Seems like the author of the universe should know about Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Do you want to see an eye doctor have a complete, apoplectic meltdown? Then just try taking your contact lenses out of your eye and putting them in your mouth to “rewet” them. I guess it’s a tribute to our body’s immune system that we don’t get more sick than we do considering all the things we expose ourselves to.

In reality, when Jesus spat in this man’s eye (and in another instance, made mud with His spit), he was practicing state-of-the-art medicine for His time. Many physicians of that era thought that saliva had medicinal properties.

Our problem is that we often think of Jesus as a ghost, this diaphanous, Gandalf figure who floated around with a halo over his head (we have the Medieval artists to thank for that) and shot fire, or better yet, laser beams from His finger tips whenever he wanted to heal someone. We forget our Incarnational faith sometimes, the belief that Jesus was fully God, but also fully man. Which means that Jesus had saliva, and sweat, and all the other bodily fluids which go along with that.

When Jesus used His own spittle to heal the man’s blindness, He was simply giving this man the kind of medical treatment that he expected, using the techniques of the time–with a little something extra, of course. The application for us? Perhaps we are God’s spit, His mud, that He is using this week to bring healing to the people of Montellano.

Secondly, I think there are some questions that we must ask about this passage: Why wasn’t this man healed completely with the first touch? Why did it take Jesus a second try? Why at first did the man only “see men as trees?”

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I do have an educated guess.

Did anyone ever see the 1999 movie At First Sight with Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino? Well, don’t worry if you didn’t–it’s not that great a movie. But it does have a lot of eyeball stuff in it, so I was pretty excited and kind of geeked out a little the first time I saw it.

In the movie, Kilmer plays Virgil, a masseuse (which, by the way Marie,  a therapeutic masseuse would be a great addition to future HTI trips) who has been blind since birth with some mysterious eye disease which only exists in the movies. As a young adult, he receives his sight through an new, experimental eye surgery. This is another Hollywood fantasy, but it’s the kind of surgery that if it did exist and Dr. Coleman performed it, everyone would come to Greenwood, Mississippi to get their eyes fixed. And afterward, when the blind saw again and everyone got hungry, they would all go out to the local Sonic and eat tater tots for dinner! (Inside joke #2)

Although Virgil sees again, he is his overwhelmed by the brightness of the light and the sudden flood of visual stimuli. Everything is blurry and distorted–he basically “sees men as trees.” When a person hasn’t seen well since birth, the occipital cortex in the back of the brain will develop what’s called amblyopia, a condition in which it is unable to clearly process visual images.

In the movie, Virgil’s amblyopia gets better for a time before he once again loses his sight. In real life, amblyopia doesn’t get better at Virgil’s age, and the only reason our patients see better after their cataracts are removed this week is that their brains have a “memory” of clear images and have processed them before when they were younger.

But this may explain why the blind man at Bethsaida needed a “second touch.” I can relate to that. When I have to redo a pair of glasses or change a treatment plan when a patient isn’t getting better, Jesus says, “I feel your pain, brother.”

He understands what it like to be tempted, to be tired, to be so overwhelmed with life and the demands made on Him that He often has to go off by Himself to recharge His batteries. He knows what it’s like to wake up with an aching back (not that that ever happens to me…). And He knows what it’s like to have to “try again.”

This story seems real to me, not the kind of thing someone would make up. It doesn’t subtract from my faith. On the contrary, it increases it.

So that’s a possible anatomical and physiological explanation of “seeing men as trees.” But let’s explore the metaphor for a moment.

I doubt that many of you college students have ever heard of Juan Monroy, but I know some of you oldsters like me have. A former atheist, Monroy is now a Spanish journalist and preacher/missionary who joined the Churches of Christ at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City after visiting one of their information tents. He is an articulate and bold spokesperson for Christ with a special passion for the people of Cuba. He once interviewed Fidel Castro, and after exchanging the customary diplomatic pleasantries, proceeded to call him out and chastise him for his poor human rights record and treatment of Christians there.

I heard Juan Monroy speak on this passage about 15 years ago, and a challenge he issued then has stuck with me ever since: “Do you see men as trees?” Or as Juan says it: “Doyouseemenastrees?” (apparently, it’s all one word in Spanish).

Do we see men as trees, as inanimate objects to be treated any old which way we choose, or as bearers of the Imago Dei? Do we look into the faces and the eyes of the people we encounter every day and recognize their value and humanity, or do we squint until they look less than human, or worse yet, avert our eyes altogether and pretend they’re invisible?

I know it’s hard for some of you earnest, hard-charging, pre-health profession students to believe this, but the day will come when you will have to work hard to treat your patients as human beings. It’s all too easy to start treating them like objects, as problems to be solved and shoved out of the way so you can move on to the next one. You must constantly make an active choice to slow down, look into their faces and eyes and remind yourself that you are dealing with a human being with hopes, dreams and fears, just like you. This is especially difficult when you’re tired, and your patient starts to get whiny and annoying.

In some ways, that’s easier to do here in Montellano than it is back in the States. Here in this exotic, lush setting where the colors are brighter, the sounds crisper and the conversation more crackling and meaningful, where we’re all on this great Mission and everything seems so Real and Important, it’s relatively easy to discern the image of God in those we encounter. How could we not in the faces of these beautiful people?

The real challenge will come when we return from this mountaintop experience and immerse ourselves once again into the normal grind of everyday living. What will we do with that anonymous “jerk” who cuts us off in morning traffic, or that friend or family member who jumps up and down on our very last nerve? What about the person who differs from us when it comes to our religious views, or as if often the case these days, our politics?

Will we see them as the enemy, as inanimate objects that we can disregard and treat any old which way we choose? Or will we make the active choice to see them as beloved children of God and human beings just like us?

May God open our eyes so that we can see our fellow man not as trees, but as precious bearers of His image, worthy of our love, respect, and our very best efforts. Thank you.

  1. Bill Gnade

    Dear Mike,

    Lovely essay. I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and that book’s second chapter, “Seeing.” Since I am not an eye-care pro, it’s about as close I come to understanding what you’ve experienced over the years.

    Is it pretty clear from the passages in Mark that the blind man Jesus healed had to have lost his sight somewhere along the line? I ask because I do not know how he would have known what “people” and “trees” look like without having had sight as a younger man. Not that it means much, really. Just wondering what you thought.

    Yes, Ecclesiastes. Simply the best.


  2. Bill Gnade

    Not sure I understand the whole problem here with ¶ breaks. Forgive me. I will just have to let my vanity sit to the side.

  3. Mike the Eyeguy

    Bill, that’s a fair point, and there’s nothing in the text (unlike other recorded instances of Jesus healing blindness) that indicates the man had always been blind. The speculation about amblyopia was purely that, merely an educated guess. But there’s something about that description of “seeing men as trees” that strikes me as a visual perception problem.

    It’s certainly possible that he could have had some sort of acquired blindness later in life, such as vision loss from cataracts or corneal scarring that might have only partially cleared with the first touch.

    That’s an interesting question: Do people born blind know what things “look like?” Even without visual stimuli, it’s possible that a blind person might form an “idea” of humans and trees from their experience with them, e.g. tactile. They might know that humans are soft, have many “bumps” and features, and move. Trees are hard, tall, straight, and generally stand still (except in Tolkein novels). And it’s easy to imagine that on “first sight” they might have some “idea” of what the two “looked like” but might still get the two confused.

    Don’t sweat the breaks. Stephan, the young German designer of this WP theme, apparently believes in allowing me breaks, but not my commenters. I have no idea why.

    But I have given you a break, or two, as usual.

    Peace backatchya, BG.

  4. JB

    I’m a little late in checking up on my blogs, but this is great, thoughtful, and honest writing, Mike, per usual. We should grab lunch again sometime soon.

  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    Lunch would be great. Send me an email, FB message, Tweet or leave a comment and let’s something up.

    Or if all that fails, just talk into the tin can.

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