The other day I was sitting at the computer, inanely shuffling from one e-mail address to another, to an article absently read. In the midst of this I was gladly distracted by the presence of Isaac, the one-year-old I take care of, beside my chair. He was absorbed; picking up his toys, one at a time, from a basket in the corner next to me and carrying them across the room where he placed them in a new nest beneath a chair. Intrigued by his attentiveness to this task, I decided he was more worth watching than whatever was hovering behind the electronic screen I’d been dazed by.
I started thinking about watching and being watched. I had the sense that Isaac was aware of this new dynamic and found some satisfaction in it. This is something I have thought about before. This feeling that an act attains wholeness through observation. It is validated by being viewed. I began to recall times that I’ve felt this craving to be noted acutely.
When I was in college it felt like my mind was incessantly whirring with ideas. I was forever forming little theories, enacting conversations, examining feelings and ideas, histories and futures and sometimes simply wondering and being suffused almost to suffocation with the ineffability of being. I remember a particular moment of a particular day, sitting in the hall of a classroom building, waiting between classes, wondering with an anxiety that gnawed into me, if the unrecorded thoughts roaming my mind mattered at all. If these wonderings were never written, were they of any significance at all? Was this all a waste? I often felt wasted in those days.
When I lived in Kentucky, I wandered often and alone. There were many wild hills with looming trees that tangled their long arms together or reached right into the sky and large rocks that rose up from beds of fallen leaves that had been layering for years and years. In the early days even a trip over the small paved hill that separated our volunteer house from the mailbox at the entrance of the valley had an aspect of grandiosity to it. I remember one day moving my bare feet contentedly from the warm pavement to the cool grass, admiring the loveliness that enveloped me, I began to wonder if I was lovely and wished for a witness. At the time my heart was hungry for love and inclined toward Spirit, so I prayed; “do you see me? do you love me? do you think I’m beautiful?” What I saw in nature, what I felt in my body, what I heard in the whispering breeze, was a yes and a yes and a yes. That was enough for me then.
Why does being seen matter? A couple of months ago Chris Hedges spoke at the Catholic Worker Resistance Retreat. He referred to our culture of celebrity saying, “We try to see ourselves as a camera would see us…” This is in part because we have so internalized the message from film, and television and advertising that those most worthy of our attention and admiration are those whose beautiful image has been captured. We continue more and more to experience by viewing rather than by being and feel like what we do doesn’t matter if it is not being watched or recorded. Hedges follow this line to illustrate how human beings become commodities, how we move from production to consumption. This, he says, is “the ethic of unfettered capitalism.” This is the ghostly apparition of the innate need for acknowledgement.
The need (or desire? I lack the proper research to assert that it is an actual need, though I suspect that it may be an integral part of being human) to be known has existed long before twitter and YouTube and public access television let us all make celebrities of ourselves. It’s entwined in child development, spirituality and interpersonal relationships of any age. I wonder where this comes from and what it means. Where do the boundaries between truth and falsity, healthy and unhealthy fall?
I like to think that who I am is who I am, regardless of who happens to know or notice. At the same time, I know the truth is that I want to be known and noticed, even when I’m withdrawing, even when I’m resistant. I know that, as far as I am concerned, something gains significance only when it enters my realm of observation. When I can see, touch, taste, smell or hear a thing; then it matters to me. I do not and really cannot (can I?) care about an issue unless I’ve seen it, or heard or read about, or in some way experienced it. So, can I be of significance if I am not experienced by another? Does what I do or what I think matter if it is not made manifest in a realm of observation outside my own? And beyond me, what about you? What about a child in danger of being bombed by a drone missile in Afghanistan, an unpublished author in Alabama, a migrant in the desert, a contemplative in a monastery, a tree in a forest. Oh dear, I just made myself think of one of the old, universal questions, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” I finally understand the weight of that common inquiry. My goodness, there really is nothing new under the sun. Yet, somehow every living thing is ever being made new. Paradox abounds. Can you see it?