The Power of Being Visible

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I have been re-evaluating my subscription to one of those social networking sites where old high school chums (or adversaries) can summarize their life stories. Pictures of past and present selves are offered up to the class of whatever year it was. It can be interesting to garner a little info about those who wielded such influence over our lives back in teendom. But it leaves me wanting even more, and the more never quite comes. I end up feeling cheated. Or maybe duped, it is hard to know. The internet can and does fool us, too.

Or if a greater exchange starts to unfold it can be a small shock, as when I corresponded with a guy I had dated only to find that though he had thrived in his career to a degree I hadn’t imagined, he seemed to have nurtured other characteristics I didn’t understand. I’d somehow expected the same person with a twist of maturity that I’d love to have coffee with. I last sent an email saying I regretted how hard it is to reconnect with those we felt we’d known well. Or thought we did. It seems defeatist to believe we can come to know one another via quick updates after decades have roared by and taken us along with them.

Come to think of it, did we even know each other as well as we imagined?

Who are we–really–that people can determine and present impressions other than the expected? That we experience our own sea changes, then sometimes are puzzled by the person we’ve become, pondering how such shifts occurred?

For some, life has polished off the snagging edges so the inner and outer being glows. Or it has reshaped selfhood so that the mirror no longer reveals what one hopes will be reflected. The outside may have been preserved or improved or broken; what is left inside is unsettled, damaged or nebulous as mist. The search for a satisfactory and fully operant identity doesn’t seem to have an expiration date–other than actual death. We go on and put our best foot forward if we can.

After I posted the nonfiction essay about aiding my sister following her hip replacement, she wrote an intense email about how she had never felt so “seen.” She was moved that I do see her, know her, understand who she is. This response caught me off guard. I assumed she knew I saw her and vice versa. Especially since we felt less than acknowledged growing up in a family shaped by well-practiced lessons, seasoned with criticisms that promoted competition and achievement, not only with those outside the family but within it. As long as there were medals and awards, we were well and duly noted, adding another feather to our parents’ caps–and ours’. As long as applause resounded as we performed onstage musically or in theatre, in dance recitals, on debate teams or a baseball field (as well as kept our places on the honor roll) we might get a congratulatory pat on the back. But we were just doing as expected so it didn’t seem like much victory. Off days or poor showings were like dangerous pits to avoid–that was the way to draw a negative response. Or to feel more invisible at home.

We didn’t think much of it, of course. My parents were, in fact, caring, concerned parents who wanted to provide the best for their children in every way. This was the way things were, and our friends’ families were much the same. It did serve to spur us onward to grander heights. And farther falls. But it is a far cry from being a family member perceived and accepted as an individual with separate ideas, longings, inclinations and goals. Just being supported in becoming one’s own person.

Being recognized for our true selves, being known and appreciated for who we are–this was not a priority in my parents’ generation. But  it can make a big difference to  children and also adults. Everyone eventually knows the humiliation at worst and discomfort at best of being excluded or overlooked, made irrelevant or anachronistic.  Just not being noted as in a room full of others feels wrong, even sad. The difference between being visible and invisible is being seen, and being seen is one of the most valuable gifts anyone can be given. Moreover, it is a basic human right to be simply acknowledged. There are so many in our world who are not.

I took a long walk today, enjoying a frigid undercurrent to the breeze, the scents of fallen pine needles and leaves releasing a rich perfume as I trod over them. A hunched, slight man leaned against a low stone fence with his overloaded grocery cart. A navy hoodie was pulled over his brow so that his eyes peered into the world like two dark shining cinders. He was smoking at his leisure. I had been taking pictures but put my camera in  my pocket. I anticipated a brief flickering of eyes over each other upon approaching. It is my habit to greet people unless I feel uneasy. I usually find strangers’ eyes meeting mine a second, one human noting the other, a briefer version of the act of “seeing” and being “seen.”

But at the very moment I looked at this man’s chiseled face and started to smile, he looked down and the window of opportunity seemed to close. He studied the sidewalk as I passed. In a heartbeat something in me wanted to stop and greet him, ask how his day had been so far. I wanted to say, “It’s a big, beautiful day and I hope it is for you, too.” I did not as it felt it would be seen as intrusive. Or was that an excuse? I did look at him still, then turned my head after I passed. He was looking my way, so I nodded at him. We had exchanged recognition of some sort. And it seemed things re-balanced.

He may not like to look right at people or at least not strangers, or he may be used to getting rude remarks, or being overlooked. He may have felt utterly irrelevant to me when he was not. I did see him, that man huddled in the cold, bright day, smoking and thinking. And he, me. Of course, I don’t know what he observed other than that; please may it not have been miserable. But we move through a shared world, if only for brief moments. Our paths might not cross again yet I am reasonably sure someone one else knows his name, what food and music he likes and who his family is, where he is from and what he dreams of when he closes his eyes. Someone, I pray, sees him deeply.

As a counselor, I interacted with clients or patients who brought to me their tangled, painful, exhausting lives. They spoke of anxiety that made them feel they were going crazy as their hearts pounded and their breath failed them. Depression that ruined every hope they had had. Shared histories I could not fully record because they were so devastating. They claimed the need of a next fix of alcohol and drugs, sex, gambling, rage. Or sat in silence and looked past me, out the window, counting the minutes until they didn’t have to find language to reveal the truth of what they knew. Or didn’t know, anymore. But as I witnessed these lives unfold, there was one thing that helped: gentle, full attention. Seeing a person for who he or she was that moment in time and being patient.

With words or with respectful stillness, I wanted each person to know this: “You are visible to me. I honor who you are, anguished and angry as you may be. I see you are here before me. I will stay with you as the courage is found to tell me what needs to be told. I choose to be present and hold you in compassion.”

As my mind freed itself of crowded thoughts and my spirit and heart opened, the client’s fear and outrage and hurt gradually receded. The authentic person, much more often than not, would begin to emerge and to further change. Become imbued with hope and even experience some happiness.

Being visible is one thing. Being visible without feeling threatened or judged promotes an atmosphere of safety. It is what we all want, a chance to just be our messy, layered, changeable, imperfect, yearning selves–without impunity. To be wholly seen is to come out of the shadows and be able and willing seek as well as offer more to others. Being valued for who we more truly are is potent. We feel meaningful and counted.

I haven’t dropped my subscription to the social networking site because sometimes surprising things happen. I have had a lot of “guests” stop by my profile. One woman shared her lifelong depression with me and asked for assistance; I was able to be there for her until she sought help. Another shared a hard time she had undergone and how she has moved forward. But generally, we are not taking the chances of being that open. I get it; it’s social networking, not a twelve step meeting or a prayer group. I will just have to wonder who they have become and wish them well.

There have been kind comments. I was touched that many recall a young woman with a ready smile, someone confident and easy to talk to, ambitious, with talents and some flair. This is noted only because that girl they thought they knew was someone who suffered. The teen-aged me was wrapped in heartache and distrust, waylaid by substance abuse, a girl trying to decipher the meaning of life when it was turned inside out and upside down much of the time. Maybe we all felt that way to some degree. The vast majority of us made it out of high school alive.

But I know even then I felt what I am certain of now: we each are given a brief time and a place on this tilting earth. It may or may not feel deserved, whatever it is. But we are here and we matter as do all creatures. We are part of the whole schemata, share the home of our universe, and our absence is as noteworthy as our presence. We can do our best to honor our sameness, respect our differences. Right now, please pause in the midst of your fast-acting, quick-talking lives.

Look at one another. See, and be seen.