The President is (Legally) Blind, pt. 6

“Am I a successful person?”

It’s probably not a good idea to ask this question of yourself too often.

Obsessing over such matters demands a lot of inward-focused energy. Also, such self-assessment is inherently difficult because a worthwhile answer demands that you have a set of clear, objective standards which define “success”- not as easy as it may seem! However, every once in a while, it’s not a bad idea to take stock.

One critically important question, especially if you are born with a big physical obstacle to overcome, is this: “Am I successful given the fact that I’ve always had to fight life’s battles with the disadvantage of a disability?”

As a legally-blind graduate school president and rabbi, my answer to the question of personal success is informed in part by this reality. (See earlier installments of this series for the effects of my parents’ somewhat mismatched chromosomes on me and my brother Steve.)

Although I wish Mom and Dad had a different set of recessive eyesight genes, I haven’t let my disability defeat me, and I have developed some life skills that I want to share with you. These have helped me achieve a limited—though meaningful—level of what could be termed “success”. Perhaps my approach can help you travel the path God has destined for you.

Let’s begin here: I play to my strengths, not my weaknesses.

Weaknesses? Plenty. I don’t drive. I have a lot of trouble reading small-print Hebrew and English books. I can’t identify any colors. Without a double pair of sunglasses, I don’t dare ride a bike on a sunny day. I miss the multitudinous cues that come from clearly seeing people’s facial expressions. Computer screens tire me out. At age 67, the eyesight challenge has become more acute.

So do I allow these challenges to crush me? No! I have a different strategy: I play to the things I’m good at and I seek to grow in those areas first and foremost. I try to capitalize on the professional and artistic goals that come a bit easier, but which are important to my personal and professional life.

Some examples:

I love to play flute and trombone, but reading music is difficult for me. To see sheet music, I have to hover six inches away from the music stand, but doing that negatively affects one’s posture and playing. So I just memorize the music. A jazz tune, a Bach sonata… I just slowly, methodically commit these to memory. It’s a laborious process, but I have found that playing memorized music adds a spontaneity when I perform that would be diminished if I had to rely on the printed music.

Giving sermons is one of my favorite professional activities. Good eye contact with people demands that I not bury my head in sermon notes. So I learned from the great Haddon Robinson how to preach with minimal notes.

The telephone is the great leveler when it comes to sensing cues from others. I love the phone because I can rely on voice tone, inflection, etc., to really hear what people are saying. Relying on the telephone is a strength. I nurture it.

Driving for most guys is a modern necessity. But Sue and I choose to live near trains and buses, and I get to ride for free because of my legal blindness. Does traveling take much longer? Sure. But capitalizing on Boston’s fine public transportation is my way of compensating, and I enjoy having that time to read and reflect.

My bicycle is terrific—a Surly touring bike with disk brakes, very bright blinking lights, and panniers. But I’ve had to learn to sometimes bike like a six-year-old and ride on the sidewalk. So what? I’m a good bicyclist but a visually-challenged one. I’d rather swallow my pride than risk getting hit by a car.

The point is this: You adapt. You go with what you are good at. You swallow your pride and ignore that low-grade, ever-present sense of embarrassment that comes from being just…different.

So adapt your definition of success to fit the gifts and liabilities you were given by God… and choose to live.

More tips next time.

This post was written by MJTI President Rabbi Dr. Rich Nichol.

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