A 70-year-old man with a glass eye traveled across the globe with me.
I had asked Doug to accompany me to Bangladesh because I needed to find a translator for a two-week trip I was taking there. He knew the local language, so good match.
I had never met Doug until we flew off to South Asia together.
His glass eye was quite noticeable, but I didn’t mention it. When speaking to Doug, I sometimes found my gaze drifting to his left eye, the fake one, then quickly shifting to look straight into his good eye on the right. I didn’t want to seem rude or offensive by staring at his glass eye.
It became a kind of discipline for me to concentrate on his good eye.
On the plane, during one sleeping stretch, Doug began to snore. I looked at him, and his artificial eye was wide open while his real eye was shut. Experiencing the mix of an open eye and a loud snore took me off guard.
A bit later, a flight attendant came along and offered water to Doug, believing him to be awake. She offered twice, not perceiving that Doug was in dreamland. I whispered to her that he was asleep. She sauntered away befuddled.
At one point in the middle of our trip, Doug and I were sharing a makeshift room in a remote village. Just before the lights went out, Doug matter-of-factly announced, “Well, I have to clean my eye,” and he proceeded to remove his glass eye.
Unnerving as that moment was, it opened the door to conversation about his eye.
He told me that a chemical splash took sight away from his left eye when he was young. The remaining socket required either an eye patch or a prosthesis to minimize social distraction.
“I always call it my glass eye, but it’s actually made of acrylic,” he said.
He was now talking freely about his eye, and I was inquisitive.
Doug told me that sometimes he played “fake eye tricks” on people. “Once a woman stared right into my face, so I popped my eye out and asked her if she wanted a closer look,” he said grinning. “Of course, she jumped back and looked mortified!”
Losing his eye wasn’t so light-hearted at first.
“For me, the trauma of losing my eye was not so much limiting my sight, but the awkwardness of looking different in social situations. I remember the first couple of months, I rarely went out.”
I was reminded of Doug’s story when my friend, Ted Beal, a psychiatrist who works with trauma, told me about soldiers returning from battle whom he treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A substantial number of these soldiers had missing body parts.
“The fact that they don’t have an arm or a leg is only part of the story,” Ted said. “An additional tragedy is that ordinary citizens, who they fought to protect, avoid looking at them and talking to them, apparently too self-absorbed to start a real conversation.”
“What would a real conversation sound like?” I asked.
“Most wounded veterans will sometimes get a comment like ‘Thanks for your service,’ which is a good thing, but that’s where the conversation ends. Rarely does anyone think to ask, ‘What branch were you in?’ ‘What was it like for you to serve?’ ‘How did you lose your legs?’”
“The assumption is that it’s too personal, or they don’t want to talk about it,” Ted said. “But it’s usually helpful for soldiers to know people are interested in their story.”
I’m quite sure that not every person who’s experienced the traumatic loss of a body part wants to talk about their experience.
But that doesn’t mean they should be politely shunned, or that conversation should be automatically avoided.
Ted’s experience is that, often, behind the glass eye, the missing limb, or any other feature that make us look or feel like we are different, lies a desire for human contact and conversation.
The lesson here is that sometimes we’re so hyper-worried about offending others that we miss opportunities to connect.
The discomfort is in us, not in them.
NOTE: Edward (Ted) Beal, MD, has documented the experiences of returning soldiers in his excellent book, War Stories of the Forgotten Soldiers, available here.