Mr. Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, is a professor of public policy at Duke University and the author of the forthcoming book “The Beauty of Dusk,” from which this essay is adapted.
After I woke up one morning several years ago with freakishly blurred vision, doctors figured out quickly what was wrong: I’d had a rare stroke of sorts. Overnight, it had ravaged the optic nerve behind my right eye.
Worst-case scenario? The left eye would follow suit, leaving me blind. Best? Some improvement. Much adjustment. But I’d never see as clearly as before.
And, indeed, I didn’t. A thin but permanent fog hangs over the right edge of my field of vision, awaiting a sun that never comes. I sometimes confuse objects’ exact positioning in relation to one another, so I often “love” when I should “live” and “live” when I should “love,” the “i” and “o” being next-door neighbors on keypads. And my depth perception can be out of whack, as people who had me serve wine to them in the months after my stroke can attest. I’d overshoot their glasses and splash nebbiolo on their laps.
I stopped pouring. I stewed in frustration. I lived in suspense, willing my left eye to hang in there. And as it did, there was a blessed development that the doctors didn’t augur: Bit by bit, the people around me came into sharper focus, by which I mean that their fears, struggles and triumphs did.
The paradox of my own situation — I was outwardly unchanged but roiling inside — made me newly alert to a fundamental truth: There’s almost always a discrepancy between how people appear to us and what they’re actually experiencing; between their public gloss and private mess; between their tally of accomplishments — measured in money, rankings, ratings and awards — and a hidden, more consequential accounting. I’d long known that. We all do. But I’m not sure how keenly we register it, how steadily we remember it.
And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.
Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.
“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.
“Road accident, broken bones, reconstructive surgeries, can no longer fully feel a kiss.” A man I am acquainted with would be wearing that, the shorthand for an ordeal that lasted years and forever altered his appearance. He’d be the object of wonder at his optimism and cheer. He’d be an example and admonishment to the defeatists in his orbit.
“Plane crash, prosthetic leg, dead 8-year-old son.” A fellow writer who used the same Manhattan workout space that I did would be wearing that, the succinct summary of a harrowing story. Flying was a hobby of his, and he was piloting the aircraft when it went down, killing his lone passenger, his only child. He almost lost his second leg and spent the next five months in treatment centers. I learned all of this not from him but from other acquaintances of his and only after many upbeat, spirited chats with him that gave no hint of it. I was stunned and humbled.
“Debilitating headaches, near-constant shrieking in ears, frequent thoughts of suicide.” That’s what a celebrity who once confided in me would be wearing, and I doubt that anyone who had ever coveted this person’s riches and fame would trade places, not on those terms. The revelation left me awe-struck, because its revealer just kept pressing on.
Some of these sandwich boards were legible to me because I was now reading the world differently and some were presented to me by people who knew what my own sandwich board said. (“Eyesight compromised, could go blind.”) I didn’t have to compel the people in question to share what they were going through. It would dribble out in asides and unguarded moments, and I just had to be sensitive enough to hear and hold on to the details. I now was.
I followed up on comments that might have whizzed by me before and lingered in conversational spaces that I would have once hurried past or detoured to avoid. At a university that I visited to give a speech, someone mentioned the health problems of the president’s wife; when I later met her, I gently asked her about those and learned that on many days, unbeknown to people she mingled with, she soldiered through excruciating back pain. A manager in a Las Vegas restaurant who recognized me and had seen something that I’d written about my imperiled eyesight confided that he’d had lifelong vision problems; I reconnected with him later and learned his entire story, one of remarkable trials and achievements. It was a lesson in perseverance and positive thinking. It put my lesser troubles in perspective.
In so much of what I noticed and read, I found reminders — parables — of the secrets that people carry, of the suffering that they bury. I found those when Alan Krueger, a celebrated economist, killed himself in 2019.
I’d once interviewed Krueger and was struck not only by the joyfulness of his demeanor but also by the ease of the encounter. It stood out from the usual stress. I’ll tell you a secret about my journalism career, one that hints at the self-doubt and timidity that has also colored the rest of my life: Before I pick up the phone to call someone I’m about to interview, I have to steady myself. I have to take a few breaths. I’m afraid that I’ll ask the wrong questions or at least won’t ask the right ones. Or that I’ll ask them in a fumbling, embarrassing fashion. If the person with whom I’m about to speak has a well-known name or august credentials, I’m intimidated. Many of my 11 a.m. interviews began at 11:02, and many of my 3 p.m. interviews began at 3:03. That’s not because I’m sloppy or run late. It’s because I need and use those extra minutes for those breaths, which are valuable enough to be worth the price of apologizing for my slight tardiness.
But I think I called Alan Krueger on time. We’d emailed back and forth just a bit before our call, and his manner — amiable, approachable — calmed me. An economist then teaching at Princeton University, Krueger had been the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama. He’d done pioneering work on the effects of minimum wage increases, determining that they did not lead to decreased hiring and employment.
He’d also, fascinatingly, used data to come to conclusions about pain and happiness. Unemployment, he’d found, caused more than just emotional distress. Men looking for jobs reported physical pain and took more painkillers. As for happiness, one of the best ways to increase it, according to his analysis of survey data, was to spend time with friends. He often pushed past his end-of-week fatigue to attend social gatherings that he was tempted to skip.
I approached him in late 2014 as I worked on a book about Americans’ obsession with admission to elite colleges like Princeton, where, as it happened, I’d been a visiting professor that spring. Krueger and the mathematician Stacy Dale had crunched numbers on the economic benefit of having attended such a college, and they had determined that it was overrated. Krueger’s email address was public, so I wrote to him to ask if he’d chat with me on the phone about that research. I mentioned, as an icebreaker and a means of persuasion, my fleeting Princeton professorship.
He wrote back promptly, saying: “You can lecture in my class any time!” He would be happy to discuss his research, he said, but apologized that he couldn’t do so just then because he was in Italy, and after Italy, he’d be tied up for a few days with events surrounding his daughter’s college graduation. “Can we talk on Wednesday or Thursday next week?” he asked. “Or is that too late?” I got the distinct impression that if I’d said I couldn’t wait, he’d have found a way to accommodate me sooner, never mind Italy, never mind the graduation.
The following Wednesday was fine with me. We talked then, and he could not have been more polite, more pleasant, more patient, more wonderful. His words went into my book, and the book was published the following year, and whenever I saw Krueger’s name in the news — which I frequently did because he was so generous with journalists — I had a warm feeling; I even had a bit of a crush on him. The photographs that sometimes accompanied mentions of him revealed that he was handsome in addition to brilliant and kind. Some people had it all.
When Krueger died, Obama released a statement, remembering him as a man with “a perpetual smile and a gentle spirit — even when he was correcting you.” The Times Opinion columnist Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who taught with Krueger at Princeton, wrote, “I knew Alan reasonably well and never saw a hint that something like this might be coming.”
And in a sequence of tweets, Betsey Stevenson, who rotated onto the Council of Economic Advisers just as Krueger rotated off, referred to his research into pain. “Now I know that he was also in pain, perhaps channeling his own pain into thinking about the pain of others,” she wrote.
“The truth,” she added, “is that we all have more pain than the world typically knows.”
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Opinion | Losing My Eyesight Helped Me See More Clearly – The New York Times