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Impermanence Is in Sight

“That’s the way it is, Ananda. When young, one is subject to aging; when healthy, subject to illness; when alive, subject to death. The complexion is no longer so clear & bright; the limbs are flabby & wrinkled; the back, bent forward; there’s a discernible change in the faculties — the faculty of the eye, the faculty of the ear, the faculty of the nose, the faculty of the tongue, the faculty of the body.” — SN 48.41

Impermanence was coming for my eyes. I knew this because it had been only two years since my eye doctor told me I needed a new prescription for my driving glasses. And now, when I wore those glasses, they felt off. The vision change was small yet noticeable. Yet I felt confident that I was not a risk to other drivers.

A recent visit to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) confirmed my suspicions. While going through the steps of renewing my driver’s license, I put on my glasses and took the vision test. After I finished calling out the numbers and letters to the man administering the exam, he looked at me and, with a face devoid of expression, said, “You missed one.” Then he told me to continue to the next step, which was to take an updated photo. I correctly assumed that missing one was not a huge deal, and so I had passed the test. The DMV trusted me to drive with my glasses on.

Two weeks later, with thoughts of these events in mind, I drove to my yearly check-up with my eye doctor. I was mentally prepared for the fact that my vision had declined further and that I would need new lenses. I packed an older backup pair to reuse my current frames. And as she led me through reading the various eye charts, the doctor and I caught up on what had transpired in our lives over the past year. As the tests ended, she wrote some notes in my chart, looked up, and said, “Your distance vision has changed.”

Here it was, the moment that I knew had been coming. She went on: “You no longer need your driving glasses.” It must have been worse than I thought. What comes after glasses? A full headset with goggles firmly attached to my head? Sensing my confusion, she explained that my vision had gotten better. She used a human eye diagram to teach me how sometimes our vision can improve. It took me a moment to process this information. She told me: “You can keep wearing your glasses if you like, they’re not hurting you, but now they’re also not helping you.”

I drove away with my glasses on because I have 25 years of attachment to wearing them. And the same number of years making the same stupid joke: “Well, the DMV wants me to see things before I run into them.” 

In some Native American stories, the coyote is known as a trickster. He ignores the rules and can be a bit of a con artist. Reports of his antics serve as reminders to live honestly and follow societal norms. When I learn that my eyesight has improved, I am tempted to think that impermanence is a trickster too. But impermanence did not trick me. I did that all by myself. I felt the change, worked with some resistance around the difference, and then moved forward confidently, knowing what was coming. 

But with true impermanence or anicca (Pali)we do not know for sure what is coming. We learn to expect inconstancy. Yes, logically, as I grow older, there will be changes that will restrict my vision or mobility. Are those negative changes? My doctor described this as an improvement in my eyesight. That sounds good. Yet, if I cling to the view that this is good, what happens the next time my eyesight changes? What if next year my doctor says to me “time to put those glasses back on”?

In the time between when I realized that my eyesight had improved and I began to drive home, there was a part of me that wanted to be self-congratulatory. Like all those false advertisements and unrealistic expectations, I was getting older and better. Somewhere, another part of me remembered upekkha or equanimity. Best to take all of this in stride; to accept this news in a balanced and even-minded manner. It would be easier to make more out of this than it is. To grab on to this change in my vision and to become attached. Perhaps to expect even more. To forget that none of this is me, nor does it belong to me. But that is the way to dukkha.

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