From The Slow Lane
This is not a story of magic. There is a form of invisibility cloak that chokes the life out of someone rendering them empty and alone. It is invisible and deadly. I am taking this time to name it, and I hope, to begin counter-acting it. This is a collective phenomenon. One we all share responsibility for. This is a case where what cannot be seen hurts people. Here’s how.
A few weeks ago I was sitting and talking with a group of older people. The conversation, I refer to, started with a woman talking about becoming invisible to men since she aged. This led us very quickly to the experience that was widely shared by the elders gathered there. All of us shared the common experience of not being seen. In fact, this experience of invisibility seemed to characterize our shared experience. This was pretty notable since otherwise we seem like a fairly diverse group. What we were talking about, wasn’t just a gender experience, it was an aging phenomena.
That led to some deeper reflection. Growing older was plagued with the experience of disappearing, of being unseen by others. It was as if some invisibility cloak had been thrown over us, and being undesirable, we disappeared. As you can imagine this was not easily accepted, even if widely experienced. Our conversation turned quickly to the things we do to make ourselves visible. I won’t repeat the litany, but they included dressing more wildly, and seemed to re-affirm the stereotype of the eccentric old person.
That conversation, and the widespread agreement, that we had to show up to make ourselves visible, has stayed with me. I was touched by the common dilemma we all shared as members of the elder generation, and horrified by the human potential lost. In addition to being proud of the solution of working harder to show up that manifested, I was touched by how universal and costly this dilemma is. I have to tell a story to get at what I mean.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a group dedicated to becoming the change we want to see in the world. I was so glad to be there, amongst so many people I admire. Anyway one of them surprised the group by saying he was a “nazi.” At least that is the way it sounded at first. After a little while, when the incongruity of his claim settled, he talked about his life-long problem with “not-seeing.” He failed to notice so many important things. I, now think, some of the warp and weave of the invisibility cloak is composed of what we cannot see. These things are invisible because we do not have the development under our belts to render them visible.
That realization makes me ache. I don’t like the experience most disabled people call, “gaze aversion.” It hurts to not be seen, or to only be seen in one or two ways, and I don’t like to feel it. Putting all these experiences together hurts even more, because now I realize that it isn’t just an obdurate and insensitive culture that ignores us. It isn’t just prejudice against the broken-down, it is the blindness of our kind. We, by and large, are innocent, undeveloped beings, who cannot see what we don’t have the maturity to see.
It seems that one of the tasks of we elders is to break through this mass blindness and to make ourselves visible. In doing so, we take care of ourselves, and we help awaken the human world to its own potential, which it cannot see right now. As a disabled person, who has to fight invisibility all the time, I have also come to realize my fight, is the same as the elder fight; as we breakdown, as we grow greyer, as we become older, we become more disabled, and more invisible to humans who cannot see very deeply into the world. I think the real wisdom of the elderly, if such exists, is in the compassion we feel for those who are blinder than us.
I have also been dwelling with the awareness that some old people just get old, disappearing into retirement communities, homes for the elderly, and the back wards of places too cut-off to imagine, while others, fewer it seems, turn toward the responsibilities of elderhood. Now, I think I understand more about why. I think this is a case of the invisibility cloak at work. It is fatiguing to keep showing up. It is like swimming upstream. I think it just may be too hard to find the strength to swim upstream, especially if blindness makes swimming seem foolish. Why buck the reality one perceives? Some don’t, and some fewer do.
I really believe that we need each other. I think especially we elders need each other. It is hard to show up, and not be seen, or to be barely palpable. The pressures and the peace-giving (seeming) allure of the invisibility cloak are always present. And, the challenges, and thankless hardship, of growing older amidst blindness is a lot to bear. We can, and we do, but we need to help each other remember why we are doing it. We aren’t doing this solely because humanity needs it, though it does, but for our own sakes. We know we become ourselves more, we ripen, because we care for the whole. We need each other’s support to go as far as we can go — for everyone.
The invisibility cloak is a sad reality. It discourages too many. There seem to be a few of us who are voting for living the more naked life of the seen. Too whatever extent this is true, reality is changing, more of this miracle is being seen. That, and each other, is enough.