DG MARTIN COLUMN: Lessons from blindness

Going blind. Is there any way it could be a good thing?

Frank Bruni asks this question in his new book, “The Beauty of Dusk.”

D.G. Martin

Bruni, one of the great writers to move to North Carolina recently, is an opinion writer for The New York Times, author of bestselling books, and a professor of public policy at Duke University.

One day in 2017, Bruni woke up to find something wrong with an eye. He could barely see anything in that eye. Reading and driving became problematic. Doctors told him a stroke had destroyed the nerves that connected the eye and the brain.

The damage was permanent, and there was a 40 percent chance something similar would happen to the other eye. If it did, he would be, for all practical purposes, totally blind.

How Bruni dealt with life afterwards is the story of his book.

He sought out people who have been similarly handicapped: blind, deaf, injured limbs, crippling diseases. He found that many have learned to live with their situations and have refused to be defeated.

As he told me recently, “I decided to put on my journalist hat and interviewed to try to learn from people who had been confronted with serious physical and medical challenges” and learn “how they navigated those, and what they learned from them.”

He wanted to avail himself of that wisdom. So, he said, “That’s the story of the book.”

The stories he collected are impressive and inspirational.

He wrote about an English travel writer, James Holman, who notwithstanding his blindness, Bruni told me, “was perhaps the most famous travel writer of his day.”

“When he wrote about the places, to the extent that he described them visually, it was through other people’s accounts.

“But, there was still so much available to him, the smells of a place, the sounds of a place, the legends of a place. And it’s a really interesting lesson in how much is still available to us when a portion of our lives is taken away. There are still many portions of our lives, many, many perspectives and aspects left.”

Bruni writes about David Tatel, a blind U.S. Court of Appeals judge who, rather than focusing on all the negatives of his blindness, celebrates his luck at having gone blind “at a point in human progress when technology was so sophisticated and could come to the rescue in many situations.”

When Bruni told the judge that he was impressed with him and “our species’ unfathomable nimbleness,” the judge “smiled and with his whole face, then said something that echoed in my thoughts for the rest of that evening and echoes there still. ‘Starfish can regrow limbs,’ he said. ‘But that’s nothing compared to what human beings can do.’ ”

Bruni was inspired by others, such as a blind dancer, a blind painter, a blind gallerist, a blind architect, all showing the powerful ability of humans to adapt even better than the starfish.

From these many other people facing up to lost physical abilities Bruni learned that there were upsides to these downsides and the struggles that go with them.

Instead of asking, “Why me?” Bruni asks, “Why not me?”

“Why should any of us be spared struggle, when struggle is a condition more universal than comfort, than satiation, than peace, maybe than love? Should we even be calling or thinking of it as struggle, which connotes an exertion beyond the usual, a deviation from the norm?”

He told me that we are dealt a set of cards in this life. Some are really good, some not. “You have no control over what that hand of cards is going to be, but you have enormous control over how you play them. That’s a lesson that was really hammered home to me as I dealt with vision loss.”

That lesson, Bruni thinks, is one all of us should learn.

NOTE: My interview with Frank Bruni is available at


D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch” for more than 20 years.