A lesson in lenses

Part of the advice given to the newbie medical transcriptionist from the experienced transcriptionist is usually, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know more and realize what you don’t know.”

Rachel found that out this week. She got glasses. She used to wear glasses for a short period of time as an adolescent, but thinking she didn't really need them, she quit wearing them. She seemed to do fine with school and everything else - graduated from high school and college with excellent grades, went into teaching, etc. Recently, however, she is feeling her “old age” of 31, she says, and she realized she was having trouble reading fine print. She made an ophthalmology appointment and lo and behold, she needed glasses. She told me that she was shocked when, after receiving her new glasses, what a difference it made. The clerk asked her to read a sample of fine print with her glasses, then asked her to read it without the glasses. Rachel was amazed in the difference in clear vision and blurred vision. She didn’t know what she was missing until she saw clearly.

Ed said when he first got glasses as a child, he finally realized the things he had missed seeing. Once he realized what sharp vision was like, he understood what poor vision was like. Until that happened, he assumed he was seeing the same way as everyone else.

Both Ed and Rachel “didn’t know what they didn’t know” until the situation changed and their eyes were opened, so to speak. Assumptions can be a dangerous part of life. Like Ed who assumed his vision was supposed to be that limited, we are often so darn sure of what we think we “know” until something happens to challenge our perspective.

Ed and I have gotten into the habit of doing the crossword puzzle in our daily newspaper. In yesterday’s puzzle, I had one of those words that I absolutely knew fit the clue. The number of letters fit, the middle letter fit, and the whole word was a sure thing. I penciled that word in and tried to work around it. Then I got to a point where I was stuck. Some of the words I was lettering in didn’t make sense. It got to be very frustrating. Finally after a good deal of time, I realized by trial and error that the very word I had put down in the beginning, the sure bet, the word I just knew was the right one, was - of course - wrong. Once I got the right word, everything else fell into place.

You’d think we humans would have become smart enough and wise enough to realize we don’t know everything. One of my favorite movies is “Christmas in Connecticut.” The heroine has been living a life totally incongruent with her real identity. She is a magazine feature writer who writes about her life - and claims to live on a farm in Connecticut, cook divinely, is the perfect homemaker and wife and mother. In real life, however, she lives in an city apartment, is single, has never been to a farm (much less lived on one), and can’t even boil water. The trouble starts when her publisher decides to visit “her farm” for Christmas and despite our heroine's desperate attempts to maintain the farce, keeping up appearances becomes harder and harder until it all blows up. She gets fed up with the mess she has caused by pretending to be something she is not. She says in essence how she is disgusted with herself because she appears to have all the answers, and everybody believes that, but in reality really she is clueless. She got tired of being expected to know everything and having to pretend she did.

Yet we still fight on to preserve our way of thinking, even if our basic assumption is as unworkable as my “sure thing” word in my crossword puzzle. We are so stubborn (or arrogant) sometimes to think we have life down pat, we know more than anyone else, we have nothing to learn, and frequently that stubbornness gets us in tight spots because we refuse to let go. When we start out with a false assumption as our foundation, and build from there, the life we are building always topples in some way and we have to start over. Also, when we are so sure of our thinking and pathway, we are blind to life’s little pleasant surprises when they appear. Whether we are politicians, preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or dishwashers, a sense of humility is always appreciated. Even if you are one of the world’s expert in one thing, I can guarantee you there are thousands of more things you don’t know or understand - the preferred outcome being, of course, that you become wise enough to “know you don’t know.” I don’t think we can even look at the universe and think we know all the answers. Without humility, there can be no awe.

It is true that the longer I am a medical transcriptionist, the more I realize I don’t know about anatomy, body systems, instrument names, medicines, and everything else. And that is, as Martha Steward would say, "a good thing." It shows I am growing in wisdom, I am ready to learn, I never become so rigid that I let self-confidence become arrogance, and I never lose my respect for the complexity and miracle of life itself. Sometimes you see clearly and realize your vision was always flawed before - or you keep insisting you see fine and don't need any changes. Sometimes you figure out substituting one word for another in the crossword puzzle can alter the whole outcome - or you throw the whole paper away in frustration because you can't grasp the possibility that the answers you are so sure of may be wrong. Sometimes you can realize your weakness, swallow your pride and say, "I'm sorry...it was my fault...please forgive me" - or you can be stubborn and defend your actions to the grave.

These are the choices we have in life. The hymn I sang at my dad's funeral was "Be Thou My Vision." Sometimes a new way of looking at things can make all the difference.