Invisibility In A Time Of Transparency

Akiko Busch

Reading by Liz Helgesen (Download file)

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What is the difference between being invisible and just landing in a blind spot?

In the woods no more than an hour, I am struck anew by invisibility, and its improvisational choreography, as a necessary condition of life. I am reminded of the grace of reticence, the power of discretion, and the possibility of being utterly private and autonomous yet deeply aware of and receptive to the world. If I am enchanted by staying out of sight, it is because such behavior seems so rare in our own species. In recent years, we have been more preoccupied than ever by the question of how to stay in view.

Yet we humans have our own diverse ways of being seen or unseen. We have our own metrics of invisibility, and our vision is a matter that goes beyond the electromagnetic spectrum. We make ourselves known or not, and familiarity, color blindness, and peripheral vision are the least of it. We have devised a vast catalog of inventive strategies — physical, psychological, technological — for how we maneuver our way in and out of one another’s sight lines. They can be captivating, enchanting, deceptive, manipulative, hopeful, despairing, gracious, isolating, logical, illogical, strange, and altogether mysterious. This age of increasing transparency is time to consider them anew.

Visibility has become the common currency of our time, and the twin circumstances of social media and the surveillance economy have redefined the way we live. In his landmark 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch noted that “success in our society has to be ratified by publicity.” Forty years later, our cult of transparency shows his prescience, as do the enabling new technologies. It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.

A new vocabulary has emerged for this visibility. The word optics now has to do less with the science of light and more with how visual impressions of events and issues may be more important than the events and issues themselves. In altering the flow of information, the technological revolution has also radically revised the way we present ourselves to the exterior world, and the novel phrase "curating identity" refers to the self-promotion, personal branding, and ability to create and cultivate assorted profiles—consumer, social, political, professional—on social media that are viewed as valued, indeed essential, commodities. [...]

When identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diluted, some sense of authority or interiority sacrificed. It is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding. And time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world. Might invisibility be regarded not simply as refuge, but as a condition with its own meaning and power? 

Going unseen may be becoming a sign of decency and self-assurance. The impulse to escape notice is not about complacent isolation or senseless conformity, but about maintaining identity, propriety, autonomy, and voice. It is not about retreating from the digital world but about finding some genuine alternative to a life of perpetual display. It is not about mindless effacement but mindful awareness. Neither disgraceful nor discrediting, such obscurity can be vital to our very sense of being, a way of fitting in with the immediate social, cultural, or environmental landscape. Human endeavor can be something interior, private, and self-contained. We can gain, rather than suffer, from deep reserve. 

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture, and nature for a variety of publications. The excerpt above is from her collection of essays, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that escaping notice may be 'about finding some genuine alternative to a life of perpetual display'? Can you share a personal story of a time you felt an impulse to escape notice, from a space of mindful awareness? What interior endeavors connect you to your deep reserve?

Add Your Reflection:

14 Previous Reflections:

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    On Apr 8, 2021 Dave Nichols wrote:
    Isn't it ironic how being invisible (not seen by others' thoughts) frees us to be more visible (as who we truly are)? Others' thoughts can only have the power over us that we allow. 

    1 reply: Jo | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 7, 2021 Ruby wrote:
    Great article. I like how it talks about invisibility and its greatness. The Creator of this universe is invisible itself. Never coming out and boasting "I created everything". I am not on the Facebook, but much of my family and relatives are on Facebook. I see they commenting on each other postings, they perpetually are visible, I am not missing them because i see them everyday!They do not want to see me because I transitioned into a girl from man. My invisible identity!!!!!!!! I am invisible to my family and relatives but I can see them easily. Good things are invisible like the Creator. The left hand does not know when the right hand gives. There is joy in being invisible.

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 6, 2021 Sally Mahe wrote:
    Thank you for this piece. Years ago the Brahma Kumaris World Peace Organization introduced me to the power of "incognito" -providing service 'under the radar.' Not so much about not caring'who gets the credit' but a belief in the power and impact of 'unseen' intentions and actions. Quite a spiritual endeavor!

    My own need to "be seen" comes from a deep wound and continues as a deep longing. I like thisarticle because, whether for oneself, for marginalized groups, for people stuck on social media personas, for anyone whose voice is not valued as a relevant member of society - the topic ofvisibilityis lifted up and being considered inthoughtful ways. Visibilityis an excellent focus for reflection.

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    On Apr 6, 2021 Anilkumar Pandit wrote:
    Being transparent is to be in unison with space and thereby becoming all pervasive, thereby leading to total acceptance of existence..

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 6, 2021 Nancy wrote:
    Some of us "misfits" just don't feel we belong at the table. We have pursuits with
    what most would judge invaluable, or intangible. So we are quiet and hold our space knowing one day we will burst or quietly seep out the magma that is still a seed under ground waiting for the right conditions to flow.
    Some dreams are so fragile better to give them the time they need so not only do they have legs to stand on but wings to fly.

    1 reply: Joyce | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 6, 2021 Patrick wrote:
    In my later years and especially this season (>70) I am living into a word Divine LOVE (God) gave me when I asked -- "obscurity". It is in silence and solitude that I "know" all is indeed well, as Lady Julian found in the same way. She cloistered herself as an "anchorite", I find this place off in the wild or even in my own backyard. For the truth is it is more a spiritual posture or attitude than a geographical space or place. Great Mystery revealed and yet impossible to express in human language or words.

    }:- a.m. "en Christo"

    1 reply: Joyce | Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 6, 2021 David Feldman wrote:
    I am a mediator and the nicest "compliment" I can get is "you did not do anything. We hardly needed you". I became invisible. 

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 3, 2021 David Doane wrote:
    Many thoughts in reading Akiko Busch's essay. I can make myself very invisible and land in a blind spot. None of us know where we are going to land. As someone who spent years trying to be invisible, I know it is impossible to make oneself totally invisible, and it's not a good way to be. Now I want to be visible -- not imposing, not superficially narcissistically visible, not on perpetual display, but compassionately authentically visible. I've tried reticent, and for the most part, it's a waste. There is a time and place for private -- have a good reason for being private. Discretion is wise. No one is utterly autonomous. Times of being deeply aware and receptive to the world are valuable. You never know what's going on inside a person, why someone is being visible or invisible. I typically like when someone is transparent and making visible their true self. I think optics and image have become much too important in our culture. For me, going unseen or invisible i... [View Full Comment] Many thoughts in reading Akiko Busch's essay. I can make myself very invisible and land in a blind spot. None of us know where we are going to land. As someone who spent years trying to be invisible, I know it is impossible to make oneself totally invisible, and it's not a good way to be. Now I want to be visible -- not imposing, not superficially narcissistically visible, not on perpetual display, but compassionately authentically visible. I've tried reticent, and for the most part, it's a waste. There is a time and place for private -- have a good reason for being private. Discretion is wise. No one is utterly autonomous. Times of being deeply aware and receptive to the world are valuable. You never know what's going on inside a person, why someone is being visible or invisible. I typically like when someone is transparent and making visible their true self. I think optics and image have become much too important in our culture. For me, going unseen or invisible isn't the answer. I think the challenge is to be mindfully aware,real and visible at the same time. A time of retreat during which one is out of sight can be helpful not for the purpose of being invisible but to find one's truth and be one's real self.[Hide Full Comment]

    Post Your Reply
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    On Apr 2, 2021 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    As I was reading this essay written by AkikoBusch, a song I had heard a long time ago came to my mind. The song is written in Hindi by an anonymous poet.The title of the song is Mukhadakya dekhodarpanamein? Why do you look for your face in the mirror? There are two mirrors: inner and outer. In the world we live in, I seemany people seem to be interested in showing their faces in the outer mirrorsuch asFacebook, Instagram or other popular social media. A question arises in my mind what motivates people to showtheirfaces in the outer mirror. Is that their real self? Is there a discrepancy betweenthe public self and the private self? Am I a two faced person? Do I need validation for being myself in the eyes of others? If I am contented with my face as it is then there is no need to be recognized and validated by others. Mindfulness awareness helps mefind my original pure face not affected by the judgemental and critical eyes of others. Sadly, we live in a world where our face is judged b... [View Full Comment] As I was reading this essay written by AkikoBusch, a song I had heard a long time ago came to my mind. The song is written in Hindi by an anonymous poet.The title of the song is Mukhadakya dekhodarpanamein? Why do you look for your face in the mirror? There are two mirrors: inner and outer. In the world we live in, I seemany people seem to be interested in showing their faces in the outer mirrorsuch asFacebook, Instagram or other popular social media. A question arises in my mind what motivates people to showtheirfaces in the outer mirror. Is that their real self? Is there a discrepancy betweenthe public self and the private self? Am I a two faced person? Do I need validation for being myself in the eyes of others? If I am contented with my face as it is then there is no need to be recognized and validated by others.

    Mindfulness awareness helps mefind my original pure face not affected by the judgemental and critical eyes of others. Sadly, we live in a world where our face is judged by the color of our skin, by the race or by the class and by religion. When I meet someone racially different from me I become mindful of what passes through my mind. Am I looking at that peron with clear eyes or colored eyes?Practicing mindfulness frees me from thefrom the judgemental and critical voices arising in my mind. Reading and implementing the teachings of mystics and words of wisdom of enlightened spiritual teachers have helped me evolve spiritually. Clear eyes liberate me from my conditionedmindand such inner clarity helps me relate to others as children of God.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'[Hide Full Comment]

    2 replies: David, Jo | Post Your Reply

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