October 22, 2020

Being Seen

Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at), the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, 1956)

The businessman, the manager, politicians, and authoritarians share a mental habit of scrutinizing: they expertly assess people’s suitability and divide them into friends or enemies, insiders or outsiders, accomplices or victims. When everyone is judged only as means, rather than as ends, the capacity to see people for who they are diminishes. (Theodor Adorno Minima Moralia, 1951)

It follows that denying the strangeness of another person – their difference, what we don’t know about them, their life, their interiority – amounts to a supreme wrong.  Respect makes room for the other person’s difference, so that it is not trivialized or smoothed out in the name of human universality. Tact keeps a respectful distance, so as not to impose one’s subjectivity on other people.  One ought to be wary of feeding the imaginary of a relationship, (Roland Barthes, How to Live Together, 1977)

It is strange to feel invisible. I don’t remember exactly when it began to happen. The only thing I know is that I am not seen much anymore when I walk by people on the street. It is a little discomfiting, a little bittersweet. To be seen—to be desired, to be a person and not simply a role—is a beautiful human need no matter what our age is. (Man in his 70’s)

In South Africa, the people greet one another on the road by saying, “Sawubona.” It means, “I see you.” The answer is “Here I am.” In other words, you are not invisible to me. You are someone. 

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.” (singer/songwriter John Prine)

Thought-Starter Questions

  1. What experience have you had with not being seen as you are?
  2. What factors do you think lead to not being seen?
  3. What reactions did you have? Thoughts? Emotions? Reactions?
  4. How has not being seen affected your attitudes? Your behavior?
  5. Who gives evidence of seeing you clearly?
  6. Whom do you see clearly?

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