It was dusk, so the young 30-something who held the door for her friends and then entered our church in front of us can certainly be forgiven for letting the door swing shut behind her, just as my wife reached for it.
The young woman was happily occupied in conversation with her peers. My wife, with her silvery gray hair, was simply not on this young churchgoer’s radar. Nor, apparently, was I. She clearly did not see us.
We were, for all practical purposes, invisible – the kind of invisible that accompanies other hints of pending mortality, such as sore knees, weak eyesight and hearing, multiple trips to the bathroom each night, or going to bed feeling fine and waking up injured.
Invisibility comes with the territory of getting old.
I began to detect my own looming disappearance in the years shortly before I retired from teaching. Though I was no longer surprised when my high school students neither saw nor heard me until I repeated a thing 25 times, it was a shock when I realized that many of my fellow teachers were younger than my own children, and that they were about as interested as my students were in what I had to say.
At faculty meetings I felt like Rip van Winkle searching for a familiar face. Who were these young people and what had they done with all the teachers? And why did some of them seem to look past, rather than at me?
I’ve learned to accept that younger people don’t always notice me. I don’t take it personally. Furthermore it’s very freeing to let go of needing to participate in a front-row sort of way. Letting go of the need to be so visible is part of what makes retirement enjoyable.
This occasional invisibility also has another benefit – that of learned empathy. In Seattle and Victoria, B.C., recently we encountered many homeless people. Some pushed their carts about with no apparent purpose; others asked for money as we passed, and others virtually demanded it by stationing themselves squarely in our path and extending their hands, causing other pedestrians to go around and bottling things up in the process.
How did we deal with such annoyances? Mostly by steadfastly avoiding eye contact. Because to look at them, where they stood and how they appeared, conferred upon them visibility, and once you see them you have to make a decision. You either give them a little money and attention, or deny their connection to you by pretending they do not exist.
Whether the panhandlers who accosted us were truly in need or just malingering on the crowded sidewalks is not the point here. What haunted me, after several days of pretending not to see certain people, is the shared awareness of how it feels to be among the ignored. For both the truly destitute and for the malingerers, that repeated daily experience of being invisible must be soul-crushing.
There’s yet another dark side to aging and invisibility when it comes to family. I spent a lot of time with my aging parents, but often did so with one eye on the clock.
As they grew ill my parents needed more time and more “me” than I felt I could give; conversations grew repetitive, their home grew too warm, and I grew too tired. The longer I stayed, the more it seemed that I had other, more critical things to do. I could have done a much better job of being present for them.
Today I sometimes detect that trapped look on the faces of our own children and grandchildren when they visit. When I, as my dad used to do, begin sharing a story that seems to me to bear yet another retelling, someone usually says, “Yes, we’ve heard that.”
They’ve carved out their own very active lives and are clearly torn on some occasions between spending more time with Mom and Dad and rushing home/away from here to get on with those lives.
While this last brand of invisibility, too, seems fair and probably inevitable, there’s a danger in being too glib about the whole subject.
The young lady at church meant no harm, but old people don’t always remember that.
We didn’t carry enough money for all the panhandlers we encountered in Seattle and Victoria, but they are still our brothers and sisters.
And while aging families may simply be struggling with the differing agendas of life’s chapters, the hunger of parents for family connection is acute.
In each case we need to remember that in looking at or failing to look at someone, there’s more going on than just the seeing or not seeing.
Writer and teacher the Rev. Richard Rohr wrote: “You cannot initially see what you are looking for because what you are looking for is doing the looking.”
With apologies to the other fans of Rohr, I interpret his words to mean that we mustn’t forget the subjectivity of seeing or not seeing. To see others is to see ourselves, and conversely, to not see, to treat others as invisible, makes us invisible ourselves.
We should proceed accordingly.
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