By J.L. Cook
December 12, 2002
Once there was a certain teacher whose name was Nancy. Those people who knew her simply called her Nan. It just seemed to fit. She was no ordinary teacher. No, she was a teacher of blind people. This is much harder than teaching people who can see, except for one thing. These people are more eager to learn than most people whose eyes work. All of their other senses work fine, just not their eyes.
This is a very hard job to do. Not many people would even be willing to try. Some even think it is an impossible job. After all, how do you go about describing a tree to someone who cannot see? The beauty and majesty of a tree is beyond the imagination, if you have never seen one. No, the reality of a tree must be experienced. Seeing the limbs extending up and out from a thick trunk, planted deep into the ground. The big and small limbs reaching out to the sky, all covered with pretty leaves that seem to be shouting to the world, “I am alive”. How can you describe that to someone who cannot see?
Often Nan would take her students out into the yard, and let them feel of the trees. They could hear the rustling of the leaves, in the wind. But deep down, Nan knew that they would never comprehend a tree like someone who could see. She tried to describe it over and over in every possible detail, and the students certainly did enjoy it, but Nan realized that words are just not enough to explain what a tree really is. A tree must be experienced. It must be touched and seen. It invites you to climb it, or just sit under it and daydream, in its shade.
Nan had one particular student whom she became very attached to. Her name was Sally, and she was Nan’s favorite student. Nan knew that she wasn’t supposed to get attached to her students, or have a favorite, but there was just something there that drew them together. Somehow a bond had formed between them, and Sally was more special to Nan than any of the other students. Sally was born blind. She had never seen anything at all. But all of her other senses worked quite well. She liked to touch Nan, and let her small fingers roam all around Nan’s face, exploring every little nook and cranny.
Ordinarily, this would have irritated Nan. But there was such purity and innocence in Sally’s touch, that Nan actually felt special. I guess there is something extra special that happens when someone touches another with innocent affection. Then, when she was finished, Sally would say, “I like you!” Somehow an invisible connection had been made, and Nan knew this was important. It would make teaching Sally much easier, maybe even fun.
Watching Sally learn was like seeing your baby take their first steps, or speak their first words. Everything was an amazing new discovery for Sally. Her world was slowly but surely getting bigger and bigger, as she learned. She wanted to be read to all the time, from all different kinds of books. But Sally’s favorite time was when Nan would sit her down in front of the window, so that the sunshine flooded over her whole body. Then Nan would describe all the things she could see happening outside. The people walking by. Kids on bicycles. The cars and trucks that always seemed to be in such a hurry to get somewhere else. Sally did not understand why every one wanted to go somewhere else. She felt like she was in heaven, right here and now, as she listened to Nan. She could have sat there forever. But each time, it had to end. Nan had a family of her own to go home to. And they both missed each other when they were apart.
One day, as Nan was describing some cars going by, she said, “And there goes a very pretty red sports car!” Then Sally asked, “Nan, what does red mean?” Nan was very glad to answer, until she realized that this was a very hard question! How does one describe the color red? “Well, it was bright and shiny, and such a pretty shade of red”…Then, she hesitated and thought for a moment. She realized that you can’t touch red and understand what it is. No, you really have to see it, to fully appreciate what the color red is.
Nan confessed to Sally that she did not know how to fully describe the color red. They were both a little sad, until Nan promised her that if there is a way to describe the color red, she would find it. So, from that day on, Nan thought and thought of all the ways she could describe the color red. The best method she discovered was to make up stories about the color red. These stories all implied something about the color red, and Nan hoped that after Sally heard enough stories, she would start to comprehend the color red.
So, most every week, Nan would have a new story to tell Sally and the other students. And they all enjoyed these stories very much. Sometimes, to test her students, Nan would ask them to write a story of their own about the color red. The stories she received were always very interesting, and sometimes they were totally hilarious. Everybody had fun doing this, but Nan could tell that none of her students really understood the color red, not even Sally, her best and brightest student. This made Nan a little sad and a lot frustrated, but she never stopped trying. Even if these children could not see the color red, she was going to make sure that they knew everything there is to know about it.
Sometimes Nan would get other people involved in her quest to describe the color red. One time, she invited ten of her friends over for supper. Nan cooked one of the best meals ever, and she made a special effort to include as many things possible that were red. She didn’t tell anyone what she was doing. She wanted to see if anyone would notice. Well, as it turned out, most everybody noticed. How could you not notice? The plates were red. The glasses were red. There were red bell peppers, and red meat. There was red wine and red candles and red napkins and red flowers scattered all around the table. There was even cherry pie, for dessert. Nan, her husband, and all her children were all dressed in red. And they all had rosy red make-up on their cheeks.
After everybody was through laughing their heads off, Nan calmly explained to them that this was a celebration of the color red. She told them that her blind students could not see or appreciate the color red. She also told them of her desire to find a way to describe the color red to them. “So here and now”, she said, “all of us are going to experience the color red as we have never experienced it before.” And all her friends decided to join in with Nan and her family, and experience the color red. They all put on red party hats and raised their red glasses, full of red wine, up towards Nan, and said, “Long live the color red. May we all learn to appreciate it more and more”. And then they all enjoyed a fine meal of mostly red food. They liked Nan’s idea. They hoped she would someday find a way to fully describe the color red.
But Nan was not through with them yet. After supper, they all sat down in the living room, around a nice warm fireplace, watching the red flames jumping around like a troupe of circus dancers. Then Nan gave each of them a pad of paper, and a red pen, and said, “Now I want every one of you to describe, to the best of your ability, what the color red means to you. I don’t care if it takes one page or a hundred pages, you can’t leave until you have said all you can about the color red.”
Well, it took a while, but everyone was determined to help Nan in her quest, so they obediently tried to describe the color red. Some could only come up with one or two sentences, but others were more creative. They made up whole stories about the color red. One person confessed that he was color blind, and wasn’t sure if he was describing red or green. Well, all the stories were good, and some of them were very funny. But after reading them all out loud, Nan realized that she was still no closer to describing the color red, without seeing it. What amazed Nan most, and all of her friends too, was the fact that every person described the color red in a different way, yet they were all correct. It was as if they all could see, but they all saw red a little different from each other.
Nan took all of these stories to school, and read them to her students. They all got a big kick out of them. But deep down, Nan was beginning to feel that this was an impossible task. She didn’t let the students know it, though. She just kept on trying, and she kept on encouraging her students to use their imagination. She told them to pretend that they could see the color red, and then make up stories of their own. These stories turned out to be quite good, and she even had some of them published in a local magazine. So, on and on, the quest continued, to find the truth about the color red.
One day, when Nan arrived at school, she was informed that Sally would not be there, for a while. Sally had become very sick, and she was taken to the emergency room. This made Nan very sad, and just as soon as she finished working, she hurried off to the hospital. No one knew what was wrong with Sally. She had a very mysterious sickness and was in a coma. The doctors were performing all kinds of tests on her, but they did not know what was wrong.
Sally just lay in her bed, with her eyes wide open, as if she could see, but she was not awake. She did not speak or move. She did not respond to anything at all, not even when the doctors poked around on her. One even pinched her, but she never moved. She just lay there, as if she was staring out into space.
Nan loved her very much and came to visit her every day. She would always stay for an hour or two and talk to Sally. Sometimes she would read aloud some of the stories about the color red. Other times, she would stand at the window and describe what she saw outside. Nan knew it was silly, but every day she began to bring pictures of the color red, or toys or other objects of any kind that were red. She would hold them up in front of Sally, and pretend that Sally could see them. But deep down, she was afraid that Sally would die without ever seeing the color red.
She didn’t know what else to do. She loved Sally so much. So day after day, and week after week, and month after month, Nan continued to visit Sally. She would read to her and show her big beautiful pictures of the color red. She hung many of these pictures on the walls, until Sally was completely surrounded by the color red. Everyone in the hospital felt sympathy for Sally and Nan, and soon someone dyed Sally’s hospital gown red, and put it on her. A few days later, her sheets had turned a deep red color. One of the nurses even dyed her own hair red. People began to bring red balloons and red flowers and red get-well cards. They put them all around the whole room. Everyone had fallen in love with Sally, and Nan, too. Nan wore red clothes most of the time, and people began to call her, “the woman in red”.
Well, eventually Sally did wake up. She slowly got well, even though the doctors never did figure out what was wrong with her. But now she was better, and that was all that mattered. She could not see, but now she could talk and hear. And she was always glad when Nan came to visit. They were always touching each other, and they would even kiss just a little before parting. They had become best friends. Neither of them had ever had a better friend.
After a while, Sally got well enough to go home. The doctors couldn’t do any more for her. But she was getting better anyway. Every one in the hospital was sorry to see her go, especially the nurses. They had become attached to her, even though she had never seen them or spoken to them. Soon she was attending school again, and everything was back to normal, at least as normal as could be expected.
Somehow Sally seemed quieter than before. Nan thought it was just that she was still a little weak. One day, when every one else was busy doing other things, Nan took Sally over to the window and began describing the world that was passing by. Suddenly, Sally reached out and tugged on Nan’s arm. Nan stopped talking to see what Sally wanted. She was staring straight ahead, as if in a trance. Then she started speaking. She said, “I had a dream”. Nan asked, “You mean last night, you had a dream, last night?” “No”, said Sally. “When I was in the hospital. I had a dream. At least I thought it was a dream. But it seemed so real. In the dream, I could see. I wasn’t blind anymore. But I couldn’t talk or move. I could see what was happening to me. It was all backwards. I could see, but not talk. I could see, but not hear. I could see, but not move, not even when the doctor pinched me. That hurt.” Nan asked, “Are you sure this happened? You’re not making up a story, are you?” “I could see you, Nan, I swear it. You always wore red clothes. Everybody else looked dull, compared to you. But you always looked red. You are very pretty. And you would read to me, even though I couldn’t hear you. But I liked the pictures, especially the little red sports car, and that picture of Santa, and those really beautiful red flowers. They were all so gorgeous. It made me feel better, somehow. Like after I’ve eaten a really good meal, or some ice cream.” “Well”, said Nan, “Maybe it was just a dream. But it was a very nice dream. Maybe you just wanted to see the color red so much, that you dreamed it. Do you think so?” “No, Nan. I love you very much, but you’re wrong. I really did see you. I saw you hang red pictures on the wall, all around my room. And I saw the nurse come in with red hair, but she didn’t have red hair before. I really enjoyed all the pictures, but I liked seeing you most of all. You looked just like an angel, dressed in red. You’re the most beautiful person in the whole world.”
“Why, thank you, Sally. I guess you really did see all those things. I’m not so sure anyone else will believe you, but I do. I didn’t at first, but now I do. I can’t explain it, so we’ll just have to call it an act of God. Now you’ve seen the color red, and no one can take that away from you. Maybe God allowed you to see just for a little while, because He knew how much both of us wanted it to happen. Do you think so?” “Yes, Nan, I do think so. Now I know what the color red looks like, but I don’t think I can describe it. I can still see it in my head. But I can’t find the right words to explain what I am seeing. But if you see that little red sports car go by, I’ll know exactly what you mean, now. I just have one question for you, Nan.” “What is it, Sally? You know I’ll be glad to answer it.” “Nan, could you tell me what the color blue is?” Nan smiled real big, and then both of them burst out laughing. The End.
When I started writing this story, I wanted it to be a parable. I wanted it to demonstrate how words are really not capable of fully describing any thought, especially God. But the story seemed to have a mind of it’s own, and it grew a little bigger than I envisioned.
Concerning God, You can try and try and try, but even if you fill up the whole universe with true words about God, you would still not fully describe Him. No, we must see Him. We must meet Him. We must spend time with Him to come to know Him. We must search beyond the words to the reality which the words are trying to describe. But even then, if you ask the people who have seen Him, to describe Him, they all have a different description. And the story that each one writes is so different, it is amazing. But all the stories might be very true.
There is just something about God that is beyond our ability to put into words, even after you have caught a glimpse of Him. I think I’m beginning to understand what the writer meant when he spoke of the peace that passes understanding. It is something that just cannot be explained with words. When we have seen God and touched Him, and have been touched by Him, we have a special knowledge of Him that cannot be described.
Somehow, words are like poor fitting clothes, that we attempt to put on thoughts. But God is bigger than that. He must be experienced. And we must be tolerant of the way each one of us sees Him, because it will always be different. None of us see the whole picture of God. We just see a little piece of the picture. The apostle Paul said, “We know in part, and we prophecy in part”. But you know, someday our eyes will be fully open, and we will see Him clearly and know Him fully.
This story is dedicated to my friend, Nan, who has encouraged me more than she will ever know. Thank you, Nan. I love you.