On the Pursuit of Visual Happiness

On the radio, A FATHER GIVES HIS MILLENNIAL SON ADVICE ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN LIFE: “If school is making you miserable, the quit. Do what makes you happy, you only live one life.”

We are comforted by the idea that we are born to be happy – or said with more gravitas, that we have the divine right to be happy. Not me; I had to wince at the well-trodden and saccharine advice so easily proffered by the broadcaster through the words of the father. This notion, the divine pursuit of happiness, sits on my bookshelf beside Santa Claus and crossing one’s fingers to make a wish. Not that I’m against happiness, it comes, it goes, but it’s not worth pursuing for its own sake. So, let’s just dispense with that notion for now. Call me a curmudgeon if that makes you happy.

Consider this alternate view: Given only one life to live, we should more likely pursue joy through sharing and contributing to our communities, and by extension, society as a larger whole. Joy is not happiness – joy results from interacting with others in a manner of sharing and common support, where we know we are connected and part of something much greater. Happiness is sunshine, here today, gone tomorrow; joy is finding the purpose in your day even when its raining.

As a clinician, every day is joyful: This comes from sharing both good and bad news, from dealing with the humanity of people’s differences, and their complicated and multifaceted lives. When a patient overcomes medical or functional disorders, this is a happy occasion and there is much joy in that. When a child presents with a terribly debilitating visual condition that has been ignored, there is great sorrow and frustration, but there is also joy – joy in that we all share in the sorrow – we do it together, then work towards finding solutions. Again,  we are all connected, and this is in itself a great validation of our existence, how we live our lives.

Much of the work I do is painful in many ways. The neglected children are especially difficult to carry in one’s mind, heart, and soul. After a late start as a developmental optometrist (after careers in education and IT), I can already deeply appreciate the great efforts of my forebears and the price they paid for their convictions. Clarity of vision is in itself a heavy burden – knowing that so many families are affected by visual disabilities that will never be addressed is difficult to comprehend and hard to bear. Perhaps this is different for me as a former classroom teacher – I can now fully appreciate how I and the entire education system failed so many by disregarding the very basic visual foundations to learning.

Every week in clinic there is another child, another family, people who have been told that “the child’s eyes are healthy”, or that “your child has ‘x’ disorder and needs ‘a, b, and c’ treatment” for learning disability, but where visual function has not been assessed adequately. These families are the lucky ones – we can rule out vision disorders, or address the problems we do find. Most often, there is something we can do to make a big difference without every touching a drug. My mentors and the pioneers in developmental optometry all knew this, and were willing to pay the price of having this clinical clarity in the face of insurmountable public and professional ignorance.

There is joy in this struggle, even some happiness at times, but the joy comes from pushing forward against all odds. My own struggle meets with obstacles regularly, such as when schools refuse to support children and families with visual disabilities, choosing rather to medicate and forget. This is at the least child neglect, at worst, abuse. The semantics of these words cannot come anywhere close to describing the turmoil foisted upon these families because education and health systems are failing them. I have been personally and professionally attacked for my advocacy, and have witnessed too many tragedies to say my work is happy. The sorrow and pain that comes from sharing tragic stories with families, and the damage caused by the attacks by detractors, will not reduce the joy I feel in pursuing what is right. I thank and congratulate all my mentors and those who came before me for choosing a similar path. We’ll all be better off for those who seek a little less happiness in exchange for greater joy.

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