We don’t want to stand out. We don’t own our gifts and talents. We shy away from the limelight. Students drop a class on the day that they are to present. We can’t stand to have our pictures taken. We put on brave faces and don’t admit to our troubles. Why do so many of us fear visibility? Let’s examine the tendency to hide and the motivation behind this action.
As an undergrad I studied literature with a voracious appetite. When I first learned the concept of “the gaze” and how some of us have the status of the viewed or the power to cast down our gaze upon the object, the body of the other, it sounded true, profoundly true, and unquestionable. It has the potential to humanize or dehumanize. As a woman of color, I have often been subjected to the unwanted gaze. I have been defenseless against it, and I have also been enslaved to it, desiring it and needing it to feel alive.
Unfortunately, too many people wander through life unable, owing to trauma or abuse, to accept love in the form of healthy relationships. When you’re a teacher, you encounter people who reside all along the length of this continuum, in which the opposite extremes of this reality are the most challenging: the needy “hungry ghosts” (so named by Thich Nhat Hanh), whose bottomless hunger attempts to consume your very soul, and the stalker, bent on owning, controlling or destroying what she cannot have. Both are dangerous. Both need love. Both may not be able, ready or willing to accept the gift. Audre Lorde said that “we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” This is must be true. I’ve read that sometimes schizophrenics don’t like to take medication because they lose contact with the voices in their heads, their friends, their community. In a sense, they are constantly being seen by their personalities. They are never alone. Barring mental illness, we all do intricate dances, moving between solitude and companionship, stepping up and sliding back. But why do we let our illnesses drive us so deeply into isolation?
I believe we fear the visibility of our illnesses and diseases more than we do humiliation, which tends to be fleeting. We hide our worries, fears and doubts from others. We are expected to mask our pain, hold it together, go to work—crawl there if we must. I think of my unexplainable shame of having a shingles episode, going to work in agony. My mother insists that I not tell anyone about my shingles (if she only knew about this blog: ay-ya-ya!). More commonly, people feel apprehension to discuss cancer, skin disease, mental illness and depression. Ironically, though it is during the times when we are weak that support is most critical, we may not ask for help. Perhaps this ties in to some aspect of the American Myth of Meritocracy, the creed by which we live, consciously or unconsciously; being weak or sick places us in the “other” category, and we all strive to be included in the dominant culture, to assimilate into the norms that govern a “normal” existence, anything—anyplace—so long as we are not “other-ed.” We attempt to make ourselves invisible in order to avoid the yardstick of normalcy. This makes our suffering worse, possibly prolonging illness.
As a teacher, I find that visibility is a two-edged sword. In my quest to facilitate a classroom that is built on principles of engaged pedagogy, every student has a voice. On the one hand this is empowering for students to be seen; on the other, that visibility carries enormous responsibilities and ramifications. Some students have never been truly seen by a person in authority. This can lead to drunken power in some, usually those who already feel entitled or disenfranchised but who often possess lots of social power. It can also cause fixations in students, with the teacher as the unfortunate object of focus. A student may feel that she is special (which is not untrue) but will not know the boundaries of the relationship. These relationships can be sexualized in the mind of the student, and in a college setting, this doesn’t always feel safe. I sometimes feel vulnerable to the returning gaze. Suddenly the student wants more than I am willing to give; he takes it personally when he is not privileged above others. I cannot turn out the light. I have to see the relationship through to the end, praying that the semester will conclude well. Still other relationships are precious. The connection is deep, lasting and mutually reciprocal. I cannot have the one without exposing myself to the other. I have to be open to both, or I may miss a gem.
In my maturity, the need to stand out and take up more room than is necessary has lessened, reduced by the loving relationships that sustain me in authentic ways, rendering the superficial gaze, just that. Yet, I understand that we must be seen in a loving, compassionate light if we are to thrive. In life, our good friends see us; their gaze nurtures us. I am learning to trust people more by opening myself to sympathy and empathy. It does not make me weak, as I have always assumed. It makes me visible. Had I discussed my shingles sooner with more people, I perhaps would have received more advice, and maybe recovered faster. I am stronger in community than I am by myself. I understand that better, and it’s blessing me.