How to Develop Your Inner Life and Transmit It to Others

Some people’s life story leaves a deep and lasting impression on us, quietly illuminating our own path. Jacques Lusseyran’s is one such story for me.

Twenty years ago, I learned about Jacques through an autobiographical essay he had written that was re-published in Self-Realization Magazine (SRM). It had a deep impact on me. A few weeks ago, I came across this old issue of SRM in my home library and decided to read Jacques’ words again. I then dug deeper, reading two of his books and emerging profoundly enriched. Today, I want to share Jacques’ story with you, most of it in his own words. By the end of it, perhaps you may feel, as I do, that in Jacques you have found a long-lost friend. 

Jacques Lusseyran was born in Paris, France in 1924. When he was thirteen, Germany invaded Austria, and Jacques realized something serious was afoot. He decided to learn German, so he could understand the speeches and announcements of the ascendant Nazi Germany. His interpreter abilities were later to help him survive and serve his people during World War II. When France fell to the occupying force, he did not wish to live on the sidelines, so he set up a Resistance movement, the Volunteers of Liberty, while continuing his college studies. Within a year, it had gained six hundred members and created a newspaper to disseminate news about the war among the French. In 1943, Jacques was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp at Buchenwald. Of the 2,000 Frenchmen sent to Buchenwald, only thirty survived, including Jacques. After the war, he eventually became a college professor in the United States, teaching French literature, and wrote two books. While visiting France at the age of 47 in 1971, he died in a car accident along with his third wife.

What, you might ask, is so remarkable about Jacques’ story? There must no doubt be some heroic acts around the happenings of World War II, but many others also suffered this same fate and acted heroically. So why focus on Jacques? 

Photograph of Jacques Lusseyran

What Makes Jacques’ Story Our Story

There is one defining moment I have not yet shared about Jacques’ life. Here is how he described it: 

I am certain that children always know more than they are able to tell, and that makes the big difference between them and adults, who, at best, know only a fraction of what they say. The reason is simply that children know everything with their whole beings, while we know it only with our heads. When a child is threatened by sickness or trouble, he knows it right away, stops his games and takes refuge with his mother. 
In just this way, when I was seven years old, I realized that fate had a blow in store for me. It happened in the Easter holidays in Juvardeil, a little village in the Anjou where my maternal grandparents lived. We were about to go back to Paris and the buggy was already at the door to take us to the station.
That day in the country, as the buggy was waiting and jingling its bells, I had stayed behind in the garden, by the corner of the barn, alone and in tears…I still feel [these tears] deeply whenever I think of them. I was crying because I was looking at the garden for the last time…I couldn’t say how, but there was absolutely no doubt. 
Sunlight on the paths, the two great box trees, the grape arbor, the rows of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, all the familiar sights which had peopled my eyes, I was seeing for the last time. And I was aware of it. This was much more than childish sorrow and when my mother, after looking for me, finally found me and asked what the trouble was, I could only say: “I am never going to see the garden again.” Three weeks later it came about. 
On the third of May, I was at school as usual…At ten o’clock I jumped up with my classmates who were running for the door to the playground outside. In the scuffle, an older boy who was in a hurry came up from the back of the room and ran into me accidentally from behind…[I] lost my balance and fell, [striking] one of the sharp corners of the teacher’s desk…one arm of [my glasses] went deep into the tissue of the right eye and tore it away. I lost consciousness [and when I regained it, the] first thing that occurred to me, I remember vividly, was, “My eyes, where are my eyes?” I could hear frightened people around me talking in panic about my eyes.

On that day, because of the injuries he sustained in both eyes, he became “completely and permanently blind.” All of Jacques’ accomplishments over the next forty years, in fighting German occupation as a fifteen-year old, surviving in a concentration camp and becoming a professor of literature, came without the ability to see. But it is not simply these achievements in his outer world that we can extol or learn from – it is his achievements in his inner world. For in his blindness, Jacques ended up seeing so much more than what most of us see every day. 

And yet, you might resist – What do I have in common with a brave blind boy? Here is what Jacques may have said to you in response, as he wrote in his autobiography: 

Whenever we take the trouble to plumb the depths of an experience and extract from it all it contains, the simplest as well as the most hidden, we cease to speak of ourselves and ourselves alone. Instead, we enter the realm of the most precious, the realm of universal experience, which we share with all others.

Jacques’ inner and outer quest for truth is indeed a universal experience. It makes his story our story. So, when you can, take a short break, brew yourself a warm cup of tea, and read on. 

“One Should Not Try to Console. Instead…”

Jacques saw his parents as a special force in his life.  

My parents were heaven. I didn’t say this to myself so precisely, and they never said it to me, but it was obvious. I knew very early, I am quite sure of it, that through them another Being concerned himself with me and even addressed himself to me.

What do we have to do, today, with our children, so that tomorrow, when they reflect on their upbringing, they will say, “My parents were heaven”?

It was his parents who first helped Jacques approach his new condition in a unique way.  

Neither my father nor my mother ever pitied me because of my fate. They never said the word “unfortunate” in my presence. My father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, immediately said to me: “Always tell us when you discover something.” I was to discover more and more! And he was right. One should not try to console either those who lost their eyes, or those who have suffered other losses — of money, health, or a loved one. It is necessary instead to show them what their loss brings them, to show them the gifts they receive in place of what they have lost. Because there are always gifts. God wills it so. Order is restored; nothing ever disappears completely.

Jacques and his parents were living an idea I have long loved, once that the Sufi poet Rumi offered in the following words, “Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” 

Is there something we have lost in recent times? How may it come round to us in another form? When we wish to offer solace to someone who has lost something, how might we help them move beyond the loss to see the gifts they are receiving in its place?

Jacques goes on to share more about his parents’ attitude and the effect it had on him: 

My parents had decided, further, to let me stay among my seeing comrades. This was a bold decision. A special school for the blind would have offered greater guarantees, and I am still of the opinion that for most blind persons a special school is the quickest and most advantageous. Yet the necessity of living under the same conditions as everyone else has taught me a great deal. I had to forget that I was blind. I had to stop thinking about it.

This may appear to some of us to be a radical path. Jacques explains through a personal experience what he went through: 

When I was fifteen, I spent long afternoons with a blind boy my own age, one who went blind, I should add, in circumstances very like my own. Today I have few memories as painful. This boy terrified me. He was the living image of everything that might have happened to me if I had not been fortunate, more fortunate than he. For he was really blind. 
He had seen nothing since his accident. His faculties were normal; he could have seen as well as I. But they had kept him from doing so. To protect him, as they put it, they had cut him off from everything, and made fun of all his attempts to explain what he felt. In grief and revenge, he had thrown himself into a brutal solitude. Even his body lay prostrate in the depths of an armchair. To my horror I saw that he did not like me. Tragedies like this are commoner than people think, and all the more terrible because they are avoidable in every case. To avoid them, I repeat that it is enough for sighted people not to imagine that their way of knowing the world is the only one.
The only way to be completely cured of blindness, and I mean socially, is never to treat it as a difference, a reason for separation, an infirmity, but to consider it a temporary impediment, a peculiarity of course, but one which will be overcome today or at the latest tomorrow. The cure is to immerse oneself again and without delay in a life that is as real and difficult as the lives of others.

Outer Sight, Inner Sight

The greatest gift from the loss of his outer sight was his gain of an inner sight. 

In the days after the operation, 

I still wanted to use my eyes. I followed their usual path. I looked in the direction where I was in the habit of seeing before the accident, and there was anguish, a lack, something like a void which filled me with what grownups call despair. Finally, one day, and it was not long in coming, I realized that I was looking in the wrong way. It was as simple as that…I was looking…too much on the surface of things.
Immediately…I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there. I felt indescribable relief, and happiness so great it almost made me laugh…I found light and joy at the same moment, and I can say without hesitation that from that time on light and joy have never been separated in my experience. I have had them or lost them together. I saw light and went on seeing it though I was blind.
There were times when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing…When I was playing with my small companions, if I suddenly grew anxious to win, to be first at all costs, then all at once I could see nothing. Literally I went into fog or smoke. I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because, as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes, and I was bound hand and foot and cast aside. All at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it…Anger and impatience had the same effect, throwing everything into confusion.
But when I was happy and serene, approached people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light. So is it surprising that I loved friendship and harmony when I was very young? Armed with such a tool, why should I need a moral code? For me this tool took the place of red and green lights. I always knew where the road was open and where it was closed. I had only to look at the bright signal which taught me how to live…there were two possibilities [open to me]: to reject the world — and that meant darkness, reverses — or to accept it, and that meant light and strength.

In these statements, Jacques is providing beautiful testimony to the presence of our Inner Core, a space within each of us that is the focus of my forthcoming book, “Inner Mastery, Outer Impact”. Your Inner Core holds your highest potential. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of peace, love, intuitive wisdom, and joy. Jacques goes on to write: 

If there is one realm in which blindness makes us experts, it is the realm of the invisible.
The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells within ourselves. Yet I had to make the effort to find my way between doors, walls, human beings, and trees. As happens to all blind persons, I hurt myself often. But I quickly learned that I knocked against things only when I forgot the light. When I paid constant attention to the light, I ran a much smaller risk…There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love. When I was overcome with sorrow, when I let anger take hold of me, when I envied those who saw, the light immediately decreased. Sometimes it even went out completely. Then I became blind. But this blindness was a state of not loving anymore, of sadness; it was not the loss of one’s eyes…From numerous meetings with blind persons, and numerous questions put to them, I have learned that others have had similar experiences. Yet most do not talk about them.

Could we, too, develop this sensitive attunement to our inner world, where we notice the light within becoming steadier or dimmer based on whether we’re experiencing serenity and love, or anger and impatience?

As Jacques dove more into his inner world, he started to experience his outer world differently. 

The seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes. For my part, I discovered that the universe consists of pressure, that every object and every living being reveals itself to us at first by a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and its form…Even stones are capable of weighing on us from a distance. So are the outlines of distant mountains, and the sudden depression of a lake at the bottom of a valley. This correspondence is so exact that when I walked arm in arm with a friend along the paths of the Alps, I knew the landscape and could sometimes describe it with surprising clarity. Sometimes; yes, only sometimes. I could do it when I summoned all my attention.

Once, later in his life, when he was teaching at Middlebury College, Vermont, he was visited by Jean-Marie Domenach, a former resistance fighter, journalist and director of the journal Esprit between 1957 and 1977. Jean-Marie has reflected, “I remember something astonishing; there we were, in Vermont and he was describing the landscape to me. Was he messing with me? Because he said ‘You see those hills…’ In fact, he was totally non-blind when he spoke. He never referred to his disability and he would describe landscapes with a pertinence, a lyricism, but without exaggeration. I couldn’t understand it. He could see the hills; he could see Vermont; he could describe it better than a sighted person could.”

Gradually, Jacques started to find blessings in his blindness.  

I understood very quickly that my blindness saved me from one great misery: that of living with egotists or fools. Only those who were capable of being magnanimous and understanding sought my company. It was much easier for me to choose my comrades. I never met the boys and girls who expect only personal gain from friendship, because they never came to me. 

How much of our time is being spent in the company of “egotists or fools” versus the “magnanimous and understanding”? If we were to lose power and privilege, if the world would hold us in disfavor, who would we then discover as our true friends?

So I met the best, first in public school, then at high school in Paris, without ever having to make an effort. They were there, close to me, with me. They asked me questions, and I asked them in turn. They helped me to live as if I had eyes, to learn to climb trees, to row a boat, and sometimes to steal apples. And to their surprise and often to my own, I taught them to see better. Because of my blindness, I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it, but almost all forget to use it. That faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes, it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, of receptiveness and activity. Indeed, attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education, and something one can easily do without. It is a state of being. It is a state without which we shall never be able to perfect ourselves. In its truest sense it is the listening post of the universe. I was very attentive. I was more attentive than any of my comrades. All blind persons are, or can be. Thus, they attain the power of being completely present, sometimes even the power of changing life around them, a power the civilization of the twentieth century, with its many diversions, no longer possesses.

What diversions of the twenty-first century have reduced our power to be completely present, to change life around us? What can we do to nurture our innate ability to wield this power of attention?

Another blessing Jacques’ blindness brought to him was a sharper memory.  

The memory of a blind man is better than that of a seeing person, given equal talent. And when we say “memory,” we imply at the same time that other valuable ability: the ability to combine facts and ideas, to compare, to perceive new connections…There is no mystical reason for the better memory. It is simply that the blind in the course of time are forced to remember more than are the seeing. Thus, a blind person, as I have frequently said, immediately discovers the all-powerful and entirely unexplored realm of attention. In other words, he is less distracted by the world.

(I spoke about this topic of regulating our attention and then preserving our capacity to commit ideas and facts into memory, to support our creative pursuits, in a recent Intersections podcast with Nicholas Carr, author of an article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nick offered many treasured insights.)

Jacques learned to direct his mind to work for him, not against him. 

I had my share of misery and grief as all children do. But truthfully I don’t remember them. They vanished from my memory just like the presence of physical pain. As soon as it leaves the body, it leaves the spirit.  All my childhood [was] inclined toward joy. Not toward consolation…but toward joy.

How Blindness Thrust Jacques into the Role of a Leader

When France was occupied by the Nazis, Jacques forged a new mission, moving his focus from inner mastery to outer impact. 

Nine years earlier the outer light had been taken from me. This time outer freedom was taken from me. Nine years earlier I had found the light again in myself, intact and even strengthened. This time I found freedom there, just as present and demanding. Within a few weeks I understood that fate expected the same work from me a second time. I had learned that freedom was the light of the soul.
No one has the right to interfere with the free will of men or with their self-respect. No one has the right to murder in the name of an idea — still less in the name of an insane idea. Reminding myself unceasingly that freedom existed, and consequently reminding all those I met, had become for me the same unquestionable duty as keeping alive the light behind my closed eyes. There was no other reason for my entering the Resistance movement. 
But there was the difficulty of how to go about it. I had already solved many problems, problems related to my studies, intelligence, and inner life. Now, however, I was faced with a very difficult one. How could I find a place in the others’ society, in order to prove myself useful and necessary to them and with them? A blind person would never be admitted to a group of the Resistance. No one would be able to visualize a place for him. 
In the spring of 1941, therefore, I did what I certainly never would have done so completely and so suddenly had I possessed the light of my eyes: I myself founded a Resistance group. By taking the initiative I immediately rendered all prejudices invalid. By my decision alone I had proved that I was necessary. And that was not really difficult. Underground work required hands and eyes, but also courage and clear thinking. Also necessary was a certainty that did not depend on an idea, even an honest one, but on experience gained every day anew. This certainty I had. 
Everything else came about as if by itself. I gathered around me several hundred young people, mostly students. We wrote and published an underground newspaper. We formed small action groups that one day could become the cadre of a national movement. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of 1943 I and six hundred of my comrades were finally able to join the Défense de la France movement, one of the five most important non-Communist Resistance groups. 
I repeat: I am not sure I would have succeeded without my blindness. It was the blind leader whom all my comrades chose, and in whom they believed…I know for certain that in more than two years none of my comrades ever thought of the limits blindness imposed on my work. I could neither carry arms nor run through the streets of Paris with a pack of underground newspapers over my shoulder, nor could I set out to discover a German military installation. My comrades went for me. But before they went they came to me to ask the way; afterwards they came again to report on their success, and it was my task to put the results in order and to decide on new actions.
And when in 1943 I joined, with my small forces, the Défense de la France, and suddenly was a member of its Comité Directeur Clandestine and was responsible for the distribution of a newspaper that appeared every two weeks in an edition of more than 250,000, no one around me was really surprised.

The author Christopher Bamford, who wrote the introduction to Jacques’ book, Against the Pollution of the I, wrote, “It is a miracle of the Resistance, this army of young people, commanded by a blind adolescent who kept everything, including fifteen hundred telephone numbers, in his head to avoid having anything incriminating on paper.”

What a remarkable act. Because no one would admit a blind person to the Resistance, he ended up founding a Resistance group himself, and then based on the distinctive advantages his blindness gave him, he shaped his role in the group accordingly. 

The next time the world stops us from getting rightful access to a platform, could we create a version of that platform on our own? Can the shortcomings that handcuff us be the very source of our greatest strengths? Can we shape our role in the world so it capitalizes on these strengths unhindered by these shortcomings?

One other gift Jacques brought to his work in the Resistance was his ability to read people.

From the first hour, I took full responsibility for enrolling new members. Each new applicant was introduced to me, and to me alone. I talked with him for a long time; I directed at him that special look which blindness had taught me. It was much easier for me than for anyone else to strip him of all pretenses. His voice expressed his inner being, and sometimes it betrayed him.
When the voice of a man reaches me, I immediately perceive his figure, his rhythm, and most of his intentions.
Seeing prefers outer appearance. The danger…lies in the nature of seeing itself, in its outer appearance, in its usefulness. This is especially true when we use it for knowing other people. Think of the disastrous errors in our judgement when we base them on the clothes, the hairdo, and the smile of the person we meet. And yet the greatest part of our loving and our hating, as well as the greatest part of our opinions, depends on these clothes, on this smile. 
A person approaches us. What does he mean for our eyes? First of all, he makes a physical impression: i.e., there exists no relationship – not even a fleeting one – between him and us. There is only one between society and him, since it is obvious that clothes, smile, facial expressions, even gestures, in a word, behavior, are the common property of society.
I think of the endless game, a game that has become involuntary. We play it to call attention to ourselves. It is the art of deceiving the eyes of the other person, an art that filles many minutes of our lives. What we deceive is the eyes. For them we work. We know very well that they will pass over us quickly and not examine us very long. 
Naturally, there are eyes that examine and do not merely see. These are the eyes of a mother or an anxious wife, the eyes of a good physician, of a wise man, an artist, and – why not? – of a humorist. But why is it that the moment these eyes see, they seem half closed and turned inward?” Jacques concluded that this is because we need to think, concentrate, reflect. And to do so, we need to give up, temporarily, our outer sight, so we can take the pictures we have received through our eyes and hold them and explain them to ourselves within, without visual support – that is when “true cognition” occurs.

Are there situations where we lend too much credence to the outer appearance of things, or seek to deceive the world by our own outer appearance? What turn would our life take if we, like Jacques, refocused on the more authentic inner, deeper understanding of people we encounter?

AND THERE WAS LIGHT - a book by Jacques Lusseyran

On July 20, 1943, six armed officers of the Gestapo came to arrest him at his home. He was later able to guess who had betrayed him. “Elio (Emile Marongin), a medical student recruited to the cause in May via a recommendation and responsible for distribution in the Nord.” In his initial interview with Jacques, “neither his voice nor his handshake had appealed to Jacques who, for the first time, had had some doubts about recruiting him, but the recommendation came from on high and was important” (Zina Weygand, Blind Creations Conference, June 30, 2015). 

Are there times when you and I have regretted being swayed by external forces when our inner voice was warning us against going there? What will we do differently next time our outer demands are in conflict with our inner nudges?

Jacques’ book, And There Was Light, contains his account in the concentration camp, and the most important lesson in it is that there’s grace in the worst of conditions.  

Every time the sight and the tests of the camp became unbearable, I closed myself off from the world. I entered a refuge where the SS could not reach me. I directed my gaze toward that inner light which I had seen when I was eight years old. I let it swing through me. And quickly I made the discovery that that light was life — that it was love. Now I could again open my eyes — and also my ears and nose — to the slaughter and the misery. I survived them. If someone does not accept this explanation, which is the only correct one, then it seems to me that he does not know an all-important truth, namely, that our fate is shaped from within ourselves outward, never from without inward.

Socrates Among the Prisoners

In his book, Against the Pollution of the I, Jacques dedicates a chapter to Jeremy, an old man whose life intersected with his own for a few weeks when they were both in Buchenwald. 

Jeremy did not have his gaze nailed to the smoke from the crematorium, nor on the twelve hundred terrified prisoners of Block 57. He was looking through… At first, I didn’t know who he was – people spoke to me of “Socrates.” “Socrates said…,” “Socrates laughed…” 
I was expecting an eloquent reasoner, a clever metaphysician, some sort of triumphant moral philosopher. That is not at all what I found…He was a simple welder from a small village at the foot of the Jura mountains…I heard Jeremy speak of men who did not come to his shop just for their horses and their wagons but for themselves. They came so as to go home all steeled and new, to take home a little of the life they were lacking and which they found overflowing, shining and gentle at the forge of father Jeremy.
One went to Jeremy as toward a spring. One didn’t ask oneself why. One didn’t think about it. In this ocean of rage and suffering there was this little island: a man who didn’t shout, who asked no one for help, who was sufficient unto himself…Jeremy found joy in the midst of Block 57. He found it during moments of the day where we found only fear. And he found it in such great abundance that when he was present we felt it rise in us. Inexplicable sensation, incredible even, there where we were: joy was going to fill us. I knew this state through Jeremy. Others knew it too, I am sure. The joy of discovering that joy exists, that it is in us, just exactly as life is, without conditions and which no condition, even the worst, can kill…He had touched the very depth of himself and liberated…the essential, that which does not depend on any circumstance, which can exist in all places and at any time, in pain as in pleasure. He had encountered the very source of life…the act of Jeremy sums up to me the religious act itself: the discovery that God is there, in each person, to the same degree, completely in each moment, and a return can be made toward Him…I have spoken of him as a living prayer.
I saw Jeremy walk through our barracks. A space formed itself among us. He stopped somewhere and, all at once, men pressed in tighter, yet still leaving him a little place in their midst…You must picture that we were more than a thousand men in this barracks, a thousand where four hundred would have been uncomfortable…We were all glued to one another. The only movements we made were pushing, clutching, pulling apart, twisting. Now you will better understand the marvel (so as not to say “miracle”) of this small distance, this circle of space with which Jeremy remained surrounded.
One day, someone told me that he had died… I remember…that he came to see me, several days earlier, and told me that it was the last time. Not at all in the way one announced an unhappy event, not so solemnly. Simply – this was the last time…He had been of service. He had the right to leave this world which he had completely lived.
What was [exceptional] in him…didn’t belong to him; it was meant to be shared. [It] was for us to find, and to find within ourselves. I have the clearest memory of finding it. I perceived, one day like the others, a little place where I did not shiver, where I had no shame, where the death-dealers were only phantoms, where life no longer depended on the presence of the camp or its absence. I owe it to Jeremy. 

Two days before his eventual release from Buchenwald, Jacques found a scribe to help him hastily pen a letter to his parents. Describing his time at the camp, Jacques wrote in the letter: 

Here I learnt to love life and to love you even more than ever.
Prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp, 1945
Prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp, 1945

The Seeing Do Not Believe in the Blind

Re-integrating into society was not straightforward for Jacques. He wanted to teach, but French law for many years after the War did not allow blind people into the teaching profession. After many years of struggle, he was able to break into the field by demonstrating his abilities – in Greece, and later, in the United States. The challenges he faced to be accepted by a system that marginalized him moved him to later reflect: 

The seeing do not believe in the blind… Let me make a practical suggestion. Since it is a fact that prejudices against the blind are strong, and prejudices are what human beings find most difficult to overcome, I would suggest the following rule: Every time a blind person applies for work, let us give him a chance. Let us employ him on probation. We could plan a probation of perhaps six or twelve months, during which the school, the office, or the firm that has hired him would be under no obligation. Nine out of ten blind persons have been denied employment not because they have proved themselves incapable, but because they have not even been permitted to furnish proof of their abilities. Let us allow them to work! Let us trust them for a while! The results would probably be amazing.
Photograph of Jacques Lusseyran

Then he went on to recognize a broader struggle in the world. 

Let us never forget that the fate of the blind community is the fate of all minorities. It is of no importance whether these minorities are of national, religious, or physical origin. At the very best they are tolerated. They are almost never understood.

What silent people might there be, in our own midst, who we have prematurely written off, sidelined or restricted because they do not have something we blindly believe is necessary to shine? 

Jacques Lusseyran with French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus (left) and Jacques’ wife Jacqueline Pardon (right), 1953
Jacques Lusseyran with French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus (left) and Jacques’ wife Jacqueline Pardon (right), 1953

How to Captivate an Audience

Jacques became a well-loved teacher, receiving the Karl Vittke Prize for the best teaching at Western Reserve University in Cleveland (Ohio) in 1966. One of his former students said, “Never in my life have I met a teacher, a professor, a human as strong as him: he went far beyond what was expected of him. He was the only truly great professor at Western Reserve; he was a God.”

Jacques reflected once on what teaching meant to him. 

Teaching is often less difficult for a blind person than for a seeing one. When this point is disputed, the delicate question of [student] discipline is always mentioned. But I ask you, are no seeing professors unable to command the respect of their students? It is obvious that discipline depends on the natural authority, the moral strength, of the teacher, on his ability to make his material come to life. Moral authority has nothing to do with having eyes. I have been a teacher for twenty-four years without having encountered any difficulty caused by my lack of sight. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. A lecture, a course, is an exercise of mind and character. It is based entirely on our ability to develop our inner life and to transmit it to others. In that respect blindness is a school without equal.

Jacques’ ideas are in perfect congruence with the model I offer of leadership – as the act of activating one’s Core on the inside and then expressing it on the outside to help others activate their own Core.

When we seek to inspire and instruct others, do we approach this as an act of developing our inner life and transmitting it to them? 

Jacques continued: 

And silence, a certain quality of silence, shows me much better the degree of understanding, of interest, or of objection I cause in my students than could any enlargement of a movie showing their physical presence in slow motion…What causes the failure of so many teachers today — and in Europe as well as in America much is made of that failure — is their inability to step out of their own heads. Many teachers are capable, many make praiseworthy efforts, but very few are able to enter the one realm where teaching can flourish. That realm is the common space between minds. Blindness has helped me there. I had for a long time practiced the techniques of an immediate exchange between human beings: the evaluation of voices, the evaluation of silence. Thanks to blindness I learned to read many signs that came to me from others, and that usually escape the notice of the seeing. If there is one realm in which blindness makes us experts, it is the realm of the invisible. An audience is not an enemy for me; it is a new entity. Many new connections are suddenly formed within me. Since I cannot observe my audience with my eyes, and since I need not make the futile endeavor to divide it into single perceptions, it speaks to me as a whole, as a unit that can communicate.

Jacques’ Two Truths

Jacques was clear that his life experience could be just anybody’s. 

The special merit of blindness is not that it creates a different experience, but that it leads us by necessity toward a heightened experience. 

So what are the most critical lessons he would want us to draw from his life? 

[I am today] America’s guest. Loving the country and wanting to show [my] gratitude, [I] could find no better way of expressing it than in these two truths, intimately known to [me] and reaching beyond all boundaries. The first of these is that joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.

This, then, is my wish for all of us as we usher in a new year at a time of continued ferment in the world – that we discover more and more these twin truths that lie within each of us, the joy that Jeremy bubbled with, and the light that guided Jacques.

© 2021 Hitendra Wadhwa. All rights reserved.