Frank Bruni on Living with Afflictions
by Randy Kambic
One day in late 2017, Frank Bruni, a writer for more than 25 years for The New York Times—including as a White House correspondent, op-ed columnist, Rome bureau chief and restaurant critic—woke up with partial loss of sight in his right eye. He found out that his condition was non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy caused by loss of blood flow to the optic nerve. While he began treatment, he started writing a memoir to document how he was dealing with his setback and to present the stories of family, close friends, previous interviewees and others that have also encountered and dealt with medical challenges.
His new book, The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, is a wise, inspiring and moving account that displays human perseverance and optimism in navigating trauma and afflictions. Some of the people he describes are his mother, who battled uterine cancer; a college friend that has Parkinson’s disease; Cyrus Habib, a blind Rhodes scholar who became the lieutenant governor of the state of Washington; Nebraska senator and wounded Vietnam War veteran Bob Kerrey; and Juan Jose, a Mexican diplomat dealing with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes progressive vision loss.
Bruni, author of three previous bestsellers, is now a full-time professor at Duke University, teaching media-oriented classes in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write a weekly newsletter and occasional essays for The New York Times.
How is your eyesight now? Did writing The Beauty of Dusk help you better cope with your condition?
My eyesight is stable, but compromised. I have to read and type more slowly in larger fonts. Writing the book helped me cope in many ways including by showing me that with the proper adjustments, I could very much continue with my writing career.
How can we implement “taking deliberate, concrete steps to move beyond sadness” with our afflictions in practical terms?
The first step I think is recognizing how many people confront or live with affliction. That helps dilute the self-pity part of sadness. But another crucial step is realizing that what’s gone is gone, what’s lost is lost and you only compound your sadness by dwelling emotionally on what’s unchangeable versus embracing what you still have.
Can you explain how a “sandwich-board theory of life” can be helpful?
If each of us walked around wearing a list of the pain we carry or the struggles we have survived, struggles that are usually invisible, then few of us would ask, “Why me?” We’d ask, “Why not me?” And that’s the truer, healthier question.
Can terming a health struggle as an experience, not an ordeal, be applied to our lives?
Oh, absolutely. Not with the most extreme hardships, but with some of them, many of them, I think, you can become a student of your hardship. You can at least try to view that what you are going through is a test and you can allow yourself a full measure of pride in passing that test.
Is there one person out of so many depicted in your book that stands out the most to you?
I’m always thinking about David Tatel, a distinguished longtime judge, including with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who retired last year, who never let his blindness impede him. And he once said to me of the human capacity for adjusting and adapting, “Starfish can grow new limbs, but that’s nothing compared to what people can do.” I hold tight to his words and to his example.
Randy Kambic is a freelance writer and editor in Estero, Florida.