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  • Jose Arrieta

A Life: On Sight, Empathy, and Rainbows

Sight

The following is an understatement. I have bad eyesight. I was first diagnosed with astigmatism when I was 8. I just continued and grew. All my family from my mom had it. It was a signal of despair and fear that blared over my life as I grew up. The first panic attack I can remember was when a friend threw sand at me and some hit my eyes. I was 15 then and seeing was becoming a problem.


Years passed and my eyesight deteriorated. My doctors stopped prescribing glasses as there was no refraction index capable of bending light well enough for the twisted eights to become a single point. If you don't know what I mean. I am happy for you. Astigmatism is pain.


When I was seventeen I was legally blind and my life spiraled into fear. Thankfully, I live in the 21st century and a market existed that allowed me to get the corneas of people from Atlanta. Fast after my first transplant, I gained full vision. A year later the same albeit less successfully happened in the right eye.


My life as.I live it is the result of modern science. There is not a day that passes that I do not remind myself how lucky I am from being born at the end of the 20th century. Had I not, I would have remained legally blind before the end of my teenage years.


It might then come as no surprise when I say that I love photography. My first big investment as a child was a Minolta APS film camera. I loved that camera. I still remember some pictures I took of a Polar Bear who followed me in the San Diego Zoo. The photographs allowed me to see things and remember events in more detail than my eyes allowed me to experience.


My second camera came in 2004 a 4MP Sony Cybershot. This was great. You could see the pictures directly, zoom in and observe the world through its 1" square display. I bought this camera a few months before I got my new cornea. It was my crutch that allowed me to survive these months. I cannot understate how I loved that camera.


After I regained vision, my use of cameras decreased a bit. But not fully. Research-wise, I got fascinated by optics once again, but optics for fabrication. Big electronic microscopes, that I as an electrical engineer could control and understand. In 2010 I was selected to be part of the training program at the Costa Rican Microscopy Research center, and the first thing we learned, was FILM PHOTOGRAPHY. Turns out that electron microscopes have the same problems as normal lenses had.


This insight changed my life. I started seeing the practice of photography and the exploit of its aberrations as a way of understanding my craft. By learning how to develop film, avoid chromatic aberration, or indulge in the weird changes that wide angles lenses impart in our subjects.


My eyesight started acting out again. From the perfect vision of my early 20s, today in my mid-thirties, I am ok. Eyesight is a problem and can be a nuisance to people around me but there are things I can do to improve it. Scleral lenses give me perfect eyesight whenever I need it. I can problem-solve around it. Contrast is the problem.


If we lived in a world where black and white were the only two tones, I'd be alright. My problem comes when I go into a dimly lit restaurant, and the menu is printed in dark blue paper with the letters in a lighter shade of blue. Contrast is an issue but it also allows me to yearn for a different world, a world full of color and vividness.


For years, I have shot pictures in my Nikon D750 in Vivid mode and enhanced the colors to pop. People complain that my pictures end up a bit neon and too dramatic. They tend to confuse a feature for a bug. My yearning for vividness is central to my photography. But it is also to how I experience life.


Empathy

Similar to the need for contrast that my astigmatism induces. My being raised in a male in a patriarchal society numbed my empathy for the human experience, I grew up knowing that I could not emote. That I could only show emotions that gained dominance. Anger was the single flavor my emotional life could take. I rebelled.


Growing up in a patriarchal society I learned how anger hurts. My dad was my hero on this. He made a vow to himself to not hit anyone. This might sound trivial if you fail to check your privilege. Let me assure you it was anything but. My favorite aunt growing up faced constant beating from my dad's brother. I almost got one when I took a cigarette from the aggressor and following Costa Rican ad campaigns of the 90's said; "El cigarro mata" [cigarretttes kill]. Hearing my dad retell the story brings chills to my back. His life flashed over him. Had the aggressor touched me, my dad, vow aside would have raised hell.


I am grateful to be my dad's son. Yet, multigenerational trauma needs multiple generations to heal. I learned from my aggressive uncle that anger was something I would not do. As a child, I committed to avoiding the feeling of anger.. This was hard because, without anger, I could not show any emotion. Happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, were things I could not do. I guess contempt and disgust were allowed, but how can one fill one's heart with such weak fuel? As Bell Hooks explains: "the only alternative to not turning into a conventional macho man was to not become a man at all, to remain a boy." (p.181)


So I was, but the human spirit is great. Faced with the inability to emote, I built a fort inside of myself. I indulge in my childlike curiosity and pursuit a career in science. I learned how my career and my photography worked together. I bloomed and gained prizes in Costa Rica. I gained a scholarship to come to Switzerland. But as with any bull market, a crash followed.


When I came to Switzerland, I got fired, depressed, and from the depression divorced. I had to renew myself and one of the first things I threw out of the basket was my old rules and commitments. I allowed myself to cry, to fear, to be surprised. I was shown by example that anger is important. That one needs all emotions to live a full life. But how?


Rainbows

Rainbows are spectacles created by the universe for your eyes only. One cannot photograph rainbows well. One can just experience them. Rainbows and other forms of prisms allow us to understand light better. Rainbows show us the complexity of the universe in a simple and cohesive nutshell. They allow us to break down light into its most basic parts: An spectrum of vivid colors, the same spectrum I so loved to make pop in my pictures.


Yet, rainbows are not only meant for life. As I embarked on my journey of studying engineering and physics, I learned how one can always break apart things and behind each breakage point, the ingenuity of some person comes to light. When you use the "Exploded" view in Inventor, what you have is basically a Rainbow. A way of breaking apart something you care about into its component pieces. Inventor goes further than that and tells you which tools and materials you need to build your precious. The point is that knowledge allows us to create rainbows when we need them.


I came to learn that by breaking this apart one comes to find more vivid representations of the thing itself. There is fluff and fudge on the outside but on the inside, most things are the same. Break apart most electric generators and you will find a magnet rolling inside a mesh of metal. Break down any camera and you will find a black plaque that reacts to light. Break down any person and you will find a story. Break down that story and you will find emotions as the main building blocks of each tale of light.


As my career in engineering and physics came to a flaming end. I needed a new rainbow. I needed to understand how thins things I had built and taken apart piece by piece had broken down so spectacularly. Soon I learned, that deep down in my identity hid a big layer of fluff and fudge covered in a plastic yellow label with big bold black letters: Do not Open Emotions Inside. What could happen?


I broke my vow, in the midst of my anger, depression, and frustration, I opened the box and saw light. A dull white light. I could not understand it. I could not break it apart. I could not. With time, I learned that this light reacts to people. It reacts to stories. When I read Heart Berries, Educated or Grief is the Thing with Feathers, watch Tales of the City Euphoria, and Lucky, or meet with brave people who lead their lives with their hearts and not their minds, the light reacts, it grows, it shines, it leads the way.


After I read Between the World and Me I kept telling people how the book was as if a completely new color of light had just appeared. I could look back at my life and see it in green and blue hues. All of a sudden, Ta Nehisi Coates was gifted the red light. I learned how I could have never had hung out with the people of Friends, Seinfeld, or How I met your mother, not even Will Grace and the Crew. These things I watched were not about me. I was brown and brown is not white. A fact the white little light below the yellow plastic sign could not understand back then.


Life

What do you get when an engineer, physicist, and social scientist, opens his emotional baggage? Nothing actually. The bag is hard to open. it needs help. It needs people and work. Growing up is a process. When I chose not to be.a macho man, I stunted my emotional growth. I distanced myself from others and in doing so I filter out a vast majority of examples for how to live my life. I continue to distance myself even professionally.


When I see single-colored ideas such as the apostolic devotion for efficiency, for positivity, for leaning in at work. My gut revolts and my emotional self asks me to fly and leave the room. Yet, these ideas abound in my field. Just fake it to you make it, is something we actually teach. Teach. Hell, some people even believe in it. No matter how much evidence there is for its falsehood. The monochromaticity of my field is a sad tragedy. But I am not my career.


I am still a boy looking to understand the world and be loved. The way I've described emotions as a new rainbow I might come to understand highlights an utter lack of understanding of myself. I err as I move forward. I do not know where the story will end. I know I will struggle and I will hurt the people around me. I know I will hurt myself. Yet, as Socrates sentenced himself to death, I am convinced that "the unexamined life is not worth living".


Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


I used to love this verse of Whitman's Song of Myself #51. It helped me navigate a life of plurality and curiosity. It enabled me to show my different colors to people who shone brights in their pink, purple, yellows, and greens. I loved that of me. But I don't anymore. I am done in my pursuit of rainbows, of reductionism, of understanding. I "have heart and [I] am not afraid to lead with it. I can enjoy monochromatic scales but I yearn for mixing colors. For a life of complexity, chaos, and joy.


Coda

Throughout the post, I used light as an analogy for emotional life. Light has this property that when you break it up it makes colors. It has the failure that when you put the colors back together you lose this beauty.


Yet, we all know that when we pain and add colors together we get something better and more human. All of us know this. When we add multiple crayons or watercolors together we get a rich color. The color that adorns most of our skins, and beautiful life.


Brown to me is the color of endurance. Of living one's life with an open and whole heart. The color of bravery. The color that best represents being human. Here is to a life filled with rich shades of brown.


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