Invisibility: In late May of 2006, scientists reported that it is possible to create a kind of electronic cloak that will render its occupant invisible. Pundits are already pondering what invisibility would be like for us ordinary humans. Satisfying fantasies of locker room lust may be one of the first things that comes to mind. But we can also fantasize about vengeful fantasies, spying on our boss or spouse, stealing things, or getting secret information.
The attraction of invisibility, however, may not be nearly as compelling as a desire to become visible.
Lonely in a Crowd
It may be hard to imagine myself invisible as I walk on a crowded city sidewalk: I'm out there for everyone to see. But I notice that most people are looking straight ahead, or down to avoid tripping. I may as well not exist to other people. I would guess that if someone showed my picture to one of the straight-aheaders, even a few minutes after passing me, there would be only puzzled non-recognition.
Many large companies now manage their benefits program by computer, or outsource the program's management. Invisibility takes on a new level of meaning when an automated telephone response system becomes circular or a benefits website requires dozens of links to get the simplest information. Sometimes there's no way to talk to or e-mail a human being. Getting information about health insurance, 401k funds, expense reimbursements, or nearly anything else can be an exercise in trying to outsmart a machine.
Take a Number
If I want to get attention from my government, I have to take a number - a Social Security number. I, like the nearly everyone else in the US, am invisible to anyone in charge of making laws. I will come to the attention of the enforcers of those laws only if I break them. Ironically, for the most part, I have to be a criminal to get my government's attention at any level from national to local.
We are identified by many other numbers, from various account numbers to the number we take at the deli counter. It can be maddening to call a store or credit card company and be asked to key in a dozen digits or so of the account number - and then be connected to a person who proceeds to ask for the same number. I rarely encounter a pleasant customer representative over the phone, one who knows my name and doesn't seem to be rushing me in order to meet a quota.
I can't write about racial invisibility from personal experience, but it's an important element of invisibility, and I feel I should include it. Ralph Ellison wrote about the invisibility of being black in a white society. In his first novel, Invisible Man, he says: "I am an invisible man. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me." Racism forces a cloak of invisibility in which only the cloak can be seen.
Bring It Home
In some families, Mom toils at home and often at an outside job with little recognition. Dad slaves away, invisible to his bosses and almost as invisible to his family: He's away at work during the day, preoccupied at home in the evening or doing Mr. Fix-It chores on the weekend. The kids, after a certain age, spend most of their time with friends; their parents are convenient sources of food, shelter, and clean clothes. Everyone's at least partially invisible to everyone else.
The invisible wife opens her heart, and her legs, to a man who can truly "see" her, even if this seeing is an illusion. The invisible husband hits midlife and buys a sports car, takes up bungee jumping, and runs off with the baby sitter. The invisible worker goes off the deep end and decides that the only way to become visible is with an automatic rifle. The invisible child becomes visible by becoming anorectic, or driving into a tree, or vandalizing the decorations for the prom.
Sometimes people just stay invisible and begin to fade, even to themselves. A stranger looks back at them from the mirror each morning. A stone is tied around their hearts and moored to job, family, duty.
I don't think invisibility is always one-way. If my bosses don't know me, I may not have much motivation to know them beyond press releases and in-house puffery. If my partner seems invisible to me, I am probably invisible to her. My kids and I could be mutual strangers, invisible to each other. Except for prominent news-makers, my political representatives are as invisible to me as I am to them.
Being invisible in a customer service or bureaucratic encounter can become part of a perpetuating cycle. Two invisible people face emptiness over a phone line or counter.
Throwing Off the Cloak
With a flourish, the character in the story (you? me?) whirls about. The disguising cloak goes spinning off the shoulders and flutters to the ground in front of the astonished onlookers.
Who is revealed? A villainous monster, with sneering lips and cruel, hooded eyes? A heroic figure, with confident grin and steady, determined eyes? It turns out that our cloak of invisibility wasn't invisible at all. It was a cloak of disguise: The Man Cloak. The Woman Cloak. The Dad Cloak. The Mom Cloak. The Worker Bee Cloak. The Racial Cloak. The Bureaucratic Number Cloak.
Society and social expectations wove some of my cloaks and have wrapped them tightly around me. Other cloaks are woven of my own internal materials and my own experiences. Some are conscious, many are not.
I've managed to throw off some of my cloaks. Sometimes I've found a villain inside. Sometimes I've found a hero. Sometimes I've just found more cloaks.
There should be some simple things anyone can do to shrug off a few cloaks, at least in our daily encounters. And for me there are three things - simple in concept and quite difficult in execution.
Being present. One of my biggest struggles is a lifelong choice to be lost in thought, unaware of my surroundings. This has made some relationships difficult. Part of the problem, I think, is not being present to myself, let alone others. What is it about me that I don't care to be with? Why do I want to be invisible to myself? Being present, in the here and now, is difficult but rewarding.
Seeing the individual. That person behind the counter is not just an anonymous minor functionary (I tell myself). She may be ugly or gorgeous; she may be overweight or thin; she may be of a different race or culture; she may speak with an accent different from mine. I am challenged to not let my perception stop at what is obvious or manifest. I use some imagination. She has a family. A pet or two. Heartburn from lunch. Heartache in life. Whatever. I try to look out of her eyes at the man in front of her. Is the man (that is, am I) smiling, frowning, stone-faced? Is his voice a tired, bored monotone, angry, or somehow engaged and cheerful?
Family members can be just as anonymous: Is he The Noisy Kid Who Won't Do His Homework Ever, or my flesh and blood, a child with deep feelings and unfulfilled needs, who either adores me or would if I let him? Is she The Wife Who Nags, or my unique partner and soul-mate, the one who knows me best and loves me anyway, who wants and deserves to see me as engaged and cheerful - and present?
Being myself. A mask is an important accessory to a cloak of invisibility. As part of seeing the individual, I try to drop the mask of anonymity and let that individual see me. I joke, I make small talk, I say "please" and "thank you" (and mean it). I won't become best friends with a store clerk, but why should this person rate less of me than my friends or family? I give the gift of my self to my intimates without expecting a gift in return - why not a stranger?
A family is where we shouldn't have to wear masks, but we wear them anyway. I've had to catch myself sometimes and ask what part of me the mask was trying to protect. It's easier to be myself at home with my family, but it's not automatically so.
These exercises sometimes don't work, because of circumstances or my own shortcomings. Often enough, however, the exercises result in everyone emerging from invisibility and seeing each other with the joy that we all deserve.