Sharing Lessons She Has Learned
For many youth, the teenage years are a tumultuous time filled with insecurities. Physical appearance and skills become the norm by which many are judged. Add to that a life-changing disease causing blindness, and the result could be devastating. The journey of just such an experience for one fifteen year old girl proved to be a faith builder. Jennifer Rothschild grew to become a confident, gifted and sought-after speaker. The author of numerous books and Bible studies, Rothschild has appeared on Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Life Today, and the Billy Graham Television Special. She recently took time to share her story with Risen filling the interview with her wit, charm and humble heart.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You lost most of your sight as a 15-year-old girl due to a rare form of the disease Retinitis Pigmentosa. How did this change your world and what were you thoughts at the time when your vision went away?
Jennifer Rothschild: Yes, I was 15, but prior to this I could see perfectly fine. I had glasses when I was a little girl because I was near-sighted, but evidently it was not related to the disease. I was very visual. In fact my mom was an artist and she taught me to paint and I must have inherited a little of her gift because I loved to draw and to sketch and to paint. I had a real eye for color. My favorite thing to do was cartooning. I would study my friends and family’s faces and try to capture the nuance of their personality by exaggerating their features and creating caricatures and cartoons. That’s what I loved to do and what I was known for. At school I was known to be a good artist and any time someone needed to be drawn or created – this is before computers and graphic art and apps that create all that beautiful stuff – I was the girl they went to. That was kind of my identity and what I loved to do.
The loss of my sight was gradual at first and I didn’t even realize I was having difficulty with my sight. I just thought I was clumsy or not as good at things as others were. For example, in P.E. when playing softball, I could not figure out how my teammates could catch a ball because I could never see it coming, but I assumed they couldn’t either. So one night I was with my mom and we were walking up stairs to a friend’s apartment and I kept tripping because I couldn’t see the stairs. She stopped and asked, “Why are you tripping? Can you not see the stairs?” I said, “What do you mean? You can see the stairs? I just thought I was clumsy.” She was shocked of course, and I remember feeling just as surprised. That’s all it took and I was at the eye doctor the next day.
Within a week or so I was in an eye hospital. The diagnosis came with a lot of shock. After all the testing was done we were sitting in the hospital conference room with several doctors where they explained the disease saying at that point I was not only legally blind, but that I would continue to lose my retinas, therefore my sight, until I was blind. It was silent. We were all so shocked nobody said anything. The same silence that overtook us in the conference room followed us on our 40-minute drive home.
I have had to learn the truth that when I feel invisible, insecure or overlooked, that doesn’t mean I am.
I do remember sitting in the back seat and feeling my fingertips and wondering how in the world people were able to read braille, and realizing I wouldn’t be able to be an artist. I wouldn’t be able to drive a car – that was a big deal when you are fifteen and waiting for your license. Suddenly my sense of identity and independence was stolen. When I got home I immediately went and sat at our piano, I had played piano a little bit, but of course couldn’t see to read the music anymore. I believe this was one of those defining God moments in my life, and that’s why I share it with you, because it really encapsulates so much how God changed me through blindness.
I sat down and I began to play the piano. I played by ear a song that I had never played before – because it was written in a key that was too difficult for me – it was like I understood what I was doing on that piano. I think in the mercy of God, He gave me a different gift and allowed me to express my heart and my thoughts through music. But to me, what is so significant is not just that I was able to play the piano by ear, but the song that I played I think is so significant. It was that old hymn, It is Well With My Soul. I think there was this deep thing that happened in me that day, this understanding in my soul that I probably couldn’t articulate well. It wasn’t well with my circumstances, and it probably wouldn’t ever be again, but God was really making it well with my soul. That’s what He did.
Now that doesn’t mean that having to learn to walk with a cane was not very difficult, and I was embarrassed as a teenager. It didn’t mean that I didn’t have tons of insecurity, frustration and tears, but I didn’t have that deep ache in my soul that something was lost forever. I didn’t have that fear that kept me inside. The only way I can explain it as I look back, is that it was grace. I think that is what I have relied on to make it to this point, that amazing grace that God gives us.
RM: Speaking of your relationship with God, what did faith look like in your life up to that point, and how did it change after the diagnosis?
JR: I was fifteen when this happened and I had become a Christian just a few years earlier. I remember the experience of coming to Christ with the understanding that I had at that age. One of the most beautiful evidences of that to me was that I fell in love with the Bible. I had this little red leather Bible that my grandmother gave me and I would read it every night. I really loved the Lord. So when this happened with my eyes, I feel like God had already given me such a sweet relationship with Him, at the best of my ability at that age to understand it and know it, so I ran to Him instead of from Him.
There was this thing inside of me that knew I needed God – He loves me enough to save me, He loves me enough to wash me clean, He loves me enough to be patient with me, then He loves me enough to let me be blind. I cannot do anything, but go toward Him. Blindness then became a bridge that drew me closer to God. If faith had ever been abstract, it wasn’t anymore. It became this lifeline to me that I really clung to and depended on. It proved the faithfulness of God to me.
RM: Do you think it is harder having been able to see, and then losing your sight because you know and you have experienced the world through your vision, or do you think it would have been harder to have been born blind and never seen any tangible aspect of the world?
JR: That’s a good question. Of course we only know what we know based on our experience. There was some poet, that said, “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I kind of feel that way with sight. I may have felt a different kind of loss than someone born blind, but I also have experienced such a gift even in the loss. If somebody says that towel or this shirt is red, in my mind the Rolodex begins to spin, “Is it cherry red? Or is it fire engine red? Is it the color of a tootsie pop red?” In my mind I can still see all those colors and I am so grateful for that. I also think I have an advantage with spatial orientation. One of the hardest things to lose, that I cannot remember, is people’s faces. Those faces in my mind’s eye fade with time because they have not been visually reinforced.
RM: You’ve written ten books including your newly released Invisible: How You Feel is Not Who You Are. You are very open about times you felt invisible or obstacles to happiness. Can you share a few of those times and how you worked through them?
JR: I think what is interesting is that people have assumed I wrote a book titled Invisible because I am blind and I might feel therefore invisible because of it. Or some have even asked if it was because everything is invisible to me. None of those things even entered my mind. I really titled it Invisible, because I think a lot of times that is how women feel. The point was, I have had to learn the truth that when I feel invisible, insecure or overlooked, that doesn’t mean I am.
How I feel is not who I am; there is a huge difference. My heart’s goal in writing in Invisible was for women to be able to learn the truth; that I am still learning, that how you feel matters, but it should be a trigger to lead you to a greater truth. Instead of trying to be seen and find yourself, and make something of yourself, or get someone to notice you, you have to find that sense of identity in being seen and being known in God. Then your greatest needs are being met in the right place and you have a secure sense of self because you have aligned it with God who really is your source.
RM: In your book you write about the five idolotrinkets – “perfect performance, perfect appearance, perfect kids, perfect home, and perfect husband,” and how they “are delusional in that they set up the lie that these things are ultimate, attainable, and worthy of your pursuit. Along with these idolotrinkets comes the false promise that the attainment of these things will give you your identity while making you feel accepted, secure, and satisfied.” How can we embrace the correct way of thinking and eliminate this thought process?
JR: I wish there was a formula where I could say, “When you wake up tomorrow morning if you do these three things then all those insecurities will disappear.” But it’s not that way. I think it’s a paradigm shift. The way you have to think differently. Here’s the thing, there is not one thing wrong with having or wanting a husband, there is not one thing wrong with wanting to have a nice home or do the best with what you’ve got, or there is not one thing wrong with trying to lose ten pounds, none of that is wrong, it’s all fine. It’s when those become the ultimate source of our identity.
When that starts to happen, the only way to strip them of their power is to correctly identify who the deity is. Here’s what I mean by that. When those things became idolotrinkets for me, it had to be perfect performance for me, I have to do it right. Excellence is never a bad thing, but when that becomes what I need to satisfy myself, or to soothe myself, or to serve myself, that is a clue that I have become my own god. I think the best way to overcome those things is that every time you feel this urge to gravitate toward one of them, you grab it in your mind’s eye and you look at it and you say, “Why do you matter so much to me? Why does this performance or physical appearance matter so much to me? Why?” When it becomes about satisfying, soothing, or serving me, then that is when it becomes an idol. I have had to what I call “Galations 2:20 it.” Which is to say to the Lord, “I trust you Lord and so therefore I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live and this life I now live, I am going to live through the power of You, who died and gave Yourself for me so that these idolotrinkets don’t become the source of my satisfaction.”
RM: Following the lines of idolotrinkets, you married your college sweetheart and you now have two adult sons and a daughter-in-law. Did you ever question if it could happen for you? What is your love story?
JR: I honestly thought, “What man is going to want to marry me?” – which is terribly demeaning toward myself, or any person that has a handicap, so I apologize in advance – but I really did think, “What man is going to want to marry me? I am going to be a burden to him. I’m not going to be able to do a lot of things that wives and moms would do.” I guess I didn’t decide, “I will never get married,” but I just assumed it may not happen for me.
When I went to college I met this young man named Tony who had a crush on me and he introduced me to his roommate one day and that was it, “Goodbye Tony and hello Phil.” [Laughter] This guy Phil, I couldn’t see him of course, but his personality was huge and I could tell he smiled all the time. This was 1982 and I loved everything about this man and fell deeply in love with him. We dated for few years in college and blindness was not even an issue to him. Not even one second did it enter his mind. He asked me to marry him when we graduated and it will be thirty years of marriage in August. It just has been beyond what I would’ve ever hoped or thought. I’m super grateful. I don’t know where I would be without him.
We were designed so that only one thing truly satisfies us on our worst days, or our best days, and that is God Himself.
RM: Another one of your books is, God is Not Fair: Finding Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. How can you help others understand why sometimes God doesn’t heal or He allows pain and other seemingly unanswered prayers?
JR: There is a reason that book has some 50,000 words, because it is not easy to answer that question in just a few. Here’s the thing, there really is no answer. There is only a promise [from God] and that is, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” What I have learned is that when I have questioned the Lord, in fact, I had a breast cancer scare and I literally said to the Lord, “Wait a minute, I have met my statute of limitations. I am blind. This is not right, you don’t do breast cancer and blindness on one person!”
What the Lord has shown me is that we may understand why He allows the things He does. But here’s the deal, even if He gave us an answer as to why, that answer would not be enough. It would not be satisfying to us. We were designed so that only one thing truly satisfies us on our worst days, or our best days, and that is God Himself. I think it was C.S. Lewis at the end of one of his books, the main character says, “I see Lord now why You utter no answers, because You Yourself are the answer.” I think we are so designed to want a formula and to have the equation come out in a way that makes sense to us. God doesn’t always give us formulas, but He gives us enough grace to have faith.
RM: You travel and speak across the country and have all these incredible experiences which are far from your original career choice of cartooning. Is that something that came naturally to you or was it something that you needed to accept and embrace?
JR: I would have never in a million years planned my life the way I did and I don’t think I ever really chose it. I think in many ways it chose me. I look at what I do and I really believe it is something I received from God; I never have achieved it. I wouldn’t have had the confidence, or even to be honest with you, the drive to try to. What I have learned though it is that it did come somewhat naturally to me in that I think I was a communicator by the way God wired me.
Whether initially it was in the visual arts, and then through music, then through the spoken word, and then written word, I think God just wired me for communication. So that became a very natural expression. Now as far as getting up on the stage, I am not one of those who cannot wait to get on stage; that is not my wiring. I am what I call a learned extrovert. When the Lord taught me to love the audience, love that listener more than I love my message or my presentation, that is when I got over caring so much about crafting my talk right or protecting my image. I have always said to the Lord, “Whenever You are done, I’m done.” I love this, I will do this, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity and I have gotten to meet amazing people. I will do this as long as the Lord calls me to do it; I just want a little time to go to Italy or something. [Laughter]