This Side of Theory

Student Affairs Reflections and Musings

A Culture of Invisibility

People don’t really see each other.

You often hear the adage that people hear one another without listening; I would argue the same to be true for seeing.

Since having surgery, I’ve stood in waiting areas of restaurants and doctors’ offices while others sat, wondering what it would take for someone to offer me their seat. Never in the eight weeks since surgery, despite a fairly obtuse walking boot, has anyone offered to trade spaces with me. Tonight at a retail store, a woman pushed past me in the checkout lane — literally pushing me forward and trapping me between the cashier’s counter and my cart —  and when I sighed, she snapped at me for sighing. I pointed out the walking boot, and she dismissed me with an eye roll.

It’s bigger than a small, temporary foot injury though.

We just don’t see each other.

We overlook physical warning signs of depression, anxiety, illness, addiction.  We don’t acknowledge changes to demeanor or behavior in the immediate, waiting instead until others have reached their breaking point before acknowledging the changes or offering help. We ignore what we don’t understand or can’t explain. Is someone using more sick time than usual? Have they stopped engaging in their typical social circles? Is their fuse shorter than it used to be? We avoid asking about these things, not for fear it will make the other person uncomfortable, but because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Truth be told, I would probably decline a seat if offered most days. But the feeling of being seen, of being acknowledged is an important one to all of us — more important than personal comfort. Feeling invisible, feeling unseen, is one of the most desperate feelings in the world. We’ve all experienced it, and yet, we struggle in these moments to muster courage. In November, someone told me they were worried about me; the things she was worried about had been going on since August. Had she not seen them? Or had she not wanted to see them?

Who have you seen lately without really seeing them? And who do you already know you should reach out to?


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  • Amma Marfo

    Invisibility seems to me like an overcorrection from being real. We don’t want to offer the old, injured, or pregnant a seat because we’re afraid they’ll get offended. Our inner worlds are selfish, but they’re also safe and nonconfrontational. It’s a bummer though. Here’s to a day where we can get over ourselves and reach out to the people in front of us- acts of kindness as the standard FTW!

  • Kathryn Magura

    I agree with Amma, this invisibility stems from not being real. Social media has made it easier to connect with a lot of people, but how many of them are really friends? I see what you’ve experienced all the time with my mom’s disability, and it infuriates me at times. I try to do better with how I treat others, but that requires actually paying attention to others – beyond myself. I’m in if you are. It’s time for a culture change!

  • Tim Lade

    The change that I’ve had in my life this year has been from hiring an RA who is bound to a wheelchair. Previously I never would consider that rounds of the residence would be done in any other fashion than the stairwell or that we could go to any restaurant as a group and it wouldn’t matter where we sat.

    On our first staff social in January with this new staff member we had a booking at a restaurant and when we got there they had seated us on a platform up some stairs. I asked the waitress to move us to some lower tables and she asked me “can’t we just carry her up the stairs.” I was shocked but the reality is that I wouldn’t have ever considered that before. Now, it’s all I can think of when we are trying to hammer down logistics. I am fully aware of the fact that I was completely ignorant but I am working to correct that.

    Also, I put sugar in the gas tank of the rude woman who pushed past you. Hope she enjoys her walk home. You’re welcome. ;)

  • JChase82938492372389

    I’m curious why you would decline a seat if offered?