What’s a colour, anyway?

A couple of Sundays ago, the gospel reading in church told the story of Jesus healing a man who had been blind since birth.

The story went into considerable detail about what Jesus did, and how the religious authorities of his time reacted against this exceptional event. That’s understandable, I suppose, since a recurring theme in that particular gospel is the conflict between Jesus and those religious authorities.

But what caught my attention was not the institutional struggle – whether or not it really happened that way – but the experience of the blind man.

It seems that he still lived with his parents. He would have made his way, every day, from their house to his favourite begging spot beside the main road, where he collected a few coin from passers-by who took pity on his plight.

Being blind, he must have learned his route through other senses. The feel of the dirt road under his feet. The sequences of sun and shade falling on his skin. Voices overheard through open doors. The echo off the walls of his walking staff as he tapped his way along….

Perhaps even smells guided him.

And then one day, he could see.

How did he find his way home? Nothing would be familiar – nothing at all. He couldn’t turn left at the house with the red shutters on its windows, for example. He hadn’t known it had shutters, let alone what the colour red looked like.

What is red, in fact? How would you describe the colour red to a person who had never seen it before?

For that matter, how do I know that what I see as red is the same thing you see as red? I can’t see how your brain processes those wavelengths of light. All we have is a mutual agreement, an unstated consensus, that that thing over there, yes, that one, is red.

Even our reactions to colours are not universal but culturally conditioned. Most cultures think of red as representing excitement, passion. So most cultures paint women’s lips – a hyper-sensitive body part – red. Not green, or blue.

In India, brides typically wear red.

On the other hand, our western world tends to connect red with illicit passion. New England branded alleged adulteresses with the Scarlet Letter. Rather than red, western brides wear white – the colour we associate with innocence and purity.

As a child once asked, “Then why does the groom wear black?”

Black, for us, implies evil or death. But China, I understand, uses white for death; red generally means good luck and prosperity.

So how would a man who had never seen any colours before know which was which? Would he experience the same emotional reactions to colours as his culturally conditioned compatriots?

We don’t know, of course. We can’t know. We can only extrapolate from our own experience.

So if the blind man was anything like people nowadays, I suspect he might have been tempted to close his eyes, and retreat into the familiar ways of doing things that he’d known all his life.

 

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; rewrite@shaw.ca.

Just Posted

Nominations for Kelowna Chamber of Commerce “40 Under Forty” now open

The chamber said the search for “Best of the Best” is on

Kelowna city council approves off-leash dog beach on Lake Avenue

This is the fourth off-leash dog beach to be implemented in Kelowna

Nominations open for Kelowna’s 45th annual Civic and Community Awards

The awards recognize the outstanding achievements and contributions made in the community each year

Waste collection changes for Central Okanagan for the holiday season

Garbage and recycling will not be collected on Christmas or New Year’s Day

Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson won’t run again in 2021

Thomson confirmed rumours he would not be seeking re-election on Monday

VIDEO: Kenney lays out key demands for meeting with Trudeau

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney aims for clear signs of federal action on two-day Ottawa trip

Province sues over sailing incident that killed teen with disabilities

Gabriel Pollard, 16, died from injuries after marine lift failed

First Nations want Big Bar landslide cleared ASAP to allow fish passage

Leadership calling for urgent action and resources to remove obstruction on the Fraser

Assessed value of Lower Mainland homes expected to decrease in 2020

Other areas of province may see modest increases over last year’s values

Two Okanagan residents convicted and fined for hunting out of season

Both residents were convicted in a Kelowna provincial court

Book examines history of B.C. wine industry

Author Luke Whittall has studied the growth of the industry from the mid-19th century to today

Chilliwack family’s therapy dog injured in hit and run

Miniature pit bull Fifty’s owner is a single mother facing close to $10,000 in vet bills

Most Read