By Sanford D. Greenberg
“Well, son, you are going to be blind tomorrow.”
It was a strange thing to hear someone say. Strange that he should use “son” when none of us in the examining room were related to him. Strange, too, that he could speak with such assurance about such an awful outcome: Blind? Tomorrow? Oddest of all, though, was that the person — the “son” — he was addressing was me.
I was 20 years old, in the prime of my young life. After growing up impoverished in Buffalo, N.Y., I had won a full scholarship to Columbia University. Now I was a junior, immersed in a world of scholarly riches, surrounded by intellectual luminaries and the seemingly endless cultural delights of the surrounding city. I had a wonderful girlfriend, Sue, and some of the most steadfast pals a guy could ever ask for, including my roommate, an architecture student with a rare talent for music: Arthur Garfunkel, or “Art” as the world would soon come to know him.
And then the ophthalmological surgeon I had been sent to see in Detroit spoke those unforgettable words, “blind tomorrow,” and all that I had been working at and expecting to become fell into a black hole, along with my sight.
Back in Buffalo after the surgery that blinded me, I fell into a despair that at times seemed total and boundless. I still felt compelled to learn, to become someone, to have an impact on the world, but how to do that when a well-meaning social worker had already told me that the best employment I could reasonably expect was making screwdrivers.
I had been campaigning for Jack Kennedy before glaucoma shut me down, dreaming of law school, perhaps of entering politics myself. And now this — darkness morning, noon and night. Three factors combined to pull me out of the abyss. Two I will mention here; the third gets ahead of the story.
First, Sue and my family were towers of strength, even though everything they had been expecting of me — and me of myself — had been turned so savagely on its ear. Second, that spring of 1961 after I lost my sight, Arthur took a plane to Buffalo to see me, not to pat my hand and say everything was going to be A-OK, but to inform me that I was coming back to Columbia, that I was going to graduate with my class, that he would be my eyes, my guide dog, my scheduler, really my everything until I could better fend for myself.
“That’s insane!” I told him. “I can’t. Don’t you see, I’m blind!”
But I did go back. And it all came true just as Arthur had known it would. I graduated with my class, Phi Beta Kappa and as its president. Graduate school followed, at Harvard; at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar; as a White House Fellow under Lyndon Johnson. Sue and I married and started a family. I succeeded beyond all my expectations as an inventor and entrepreneur.
In time I got comfortable enough to reflect on the course of this life that had once seemed all but extinguished, and that’s when I realized the enduring power of the third factor that rescued me from despair: the sacred vow — what’s known in my Jewish faith as tikkun olam — I had made a resolution, newly sightless and still hospitalized, to do all I could to help end blindness, for everyone, forever.
The course of my life, I came to see, had been shaped by a loving wife and family, by wonderful friends like Arthur, by invaluable mentors like David Rockefeller, by my own iron determination to succeed not by the terms of my blindness but by the goals I set for myself before my vision was ended, and by the willingness of so many others to support me in that quest. The blind are, of necessity, a dependent nation.
The spine of my life, though, what has held all these years together, has been my promise to God, my tikkun olam. In its service, I have favored companies that serve health needs. One I founded created the first database tracking antibiotic resistance globally. I’ve also accepted time-consuming government positions that serve the medical commonweal, such as chairman of the federal Rural Healthcare Corporation. In the private sector, I’m currently chairman of the board of governors of the renowned Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
High marks, I used to tell myself, at least for trying. But a promise to God or whatever higher power or cosmic calling you believe in is an inviolable undertaking, graded on a scale far more demanding than numbers can account for. And by that measure, I kept thinking that I was looking through a glass darkly. But what was I to do? Blindness arrives by many roads. Would we have to kill off an entire transportation system to make it go away?
Finally, I sought the advice of a friend far wiser than I. In my memoir, I write about what followed: my meeting with Dr. Jonas Salk, his magnanimous spirit and his wonderful response when I finally gathered my courage to ask how he had conquered polio, especially three words at the end of his answer — words that have also stayed with me: Just end it!
That, I realized almost in the instant, was the liberation I had been looking for to see my tikkun olam through: Don’t get hung up in the weeds of moving forward. Start where you want to end and rearrange the world to get you there, just as Jack Kennedy did with his vow to land a human on the moon before the end of the 1960s, just as Martin Luther King Jr. did with his poetic evocation of a more just America and just as Jonas Salk did by working backward from his vow to end polio to a vaccine that actually did that. Sometimes the shortest route is what seems the longest way around.
Has it been easy? No. More than two decades would pass before my wife and I established the Sanford and Susan Greenberg Prize to End Blindness and awarded $3 million in December 2020 to 13 scientists and researchers who have made the greatest progress toward eradicating this ancient scourge.
Is success a sure thing? No guarantees there either. Perhaps blindness is an injustice tragically endemic to the human condition, a burden resistant to the wonders of science, to be randomly distributed across all of time. But given my own life experiences, given all the good fortune that has come my way, given the resources at my disposal, not to attempt to end blindness would be the biggest injustice of all.
That’s the essence of tikkun olam, to pursue perfection even if it should prove unattainable. But here’s my deepest secret: I absolutely believe that blindness can be ended, that justice for those of us forced to go through life in the dark half-light of the unsighted is well within our reach.
Sanford D. Greenberg is founder of End Blindness, chairman of the board of governors of The Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute and author of the memoir “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend.”