There is a responsibility that comes with the experience of being “less than visible”. I can still recall leaving a small vegetarian restaurant in an upscale part of town and being tentatively approached by a well-heeled middle-aged couple. The year was 1975 and I remember being treated as if I were poor, uneducated, unmotivated and barely worthy of being asked for directions. There was a freedom and bondage in that experience that were palpable. There was also an equally tangible sense of response-ability that subsequently shaped in small and large ways much of my life. Responsibility holds both the spectacle of futures to be avoided and the promise of futures to be created.
The year was 1975 and I was an idealistic graduate student in Hawaii wearing my favorite well-worn t-shirt, sun faded running shorts, cheap rubber sandals and backpack stuffed with books on oppression and family therapy. As someone who tans quite easily I looked very much like “One Royal Hawaiian”, as my fellow students would say. The irony was not lost on this native New Englander.
Earlier that week, I was an all-knowing first year Social Work student for whom it was easy to not see the lack of social connectedness a recently re-located Samoan family experienced when their child entered public school. After that experience of “being less that visible”, I met with that same parent the following week and found that it was a little easier to see the honor and loyalty that mother possessed from the way she was loved and parented in Samoa. It was easier to appreciate how her entire community took seriously their responsibility to parent each child and how each child’s parents were aware of the mutual responsibility that engendered. It was easier to appreciate how all of that and so very much more were bumping quite harshly into a Western culture’s unquestioned assumptions of what family and parenthood should look like.
There are times now when what I believe creeps up upon me in larger than life ways that seem to whisper, “Pay Attention”. Is this some inner voice telling me I am straying into places I do not want to reside or is it telling me to open my eyes and appreciate my beliefs that are staring back at me? I find these days that it whispers to me most often when I am with an older person whose tapestry is cruelly unraveling.
That does not mean that there are not days when I see others through my own inevitable social assumptions that diminish them and make them less visible than I would like to admit to myself. Part of my belief is to have learned that this act of diminishment robs my self as much as the other person.
I believe in the power of being less than visible and of the responsibility that engenders. On those days that I am fortunate enough to appreciate that tension, I recall that couple in Hawaii and quietly smile to myself.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.