I wonder what it would be like to truly be invisible. We are, of course, to some extent, but if we were truly invisible I must wonder if we would use this “power” for good or evil? And the whole Good or Evil conversation is another one entirely. But, to take Ralph Ellison’s approach to invisibility, I conducted a small experiment while commuting this week. I started watching people. I mean, really eye-balling them. This is a brave experiment for a woman in Washington DC, because eye-contact can be a bit unnerving on public transportation. But it was interesting to me how many people don’t look at anyone! They move swiftly from point A to point B and give no one else a second glance. I took my experiment further and began making mental hash marks of the number of people who outright refuse to make eye contact.
I work in retail. It is my job to be friendly and helpful to strangers. It was literally stunning how many people wouldn’t even return a simple greeting or wouldn’t make eye-contact when they did. You seriously can’t even look someone in the eye when you return a “hello”?! That’s appalling!!
I was sitting in a mall lounge one day, waiting to meet a friend for Happy Hour. I saw a woman I knew casually, sitting across the bar. Our eyes met and I smiled and gave a little wave. She just stared at me. She didn’t look away and she didn’t scowl, she just stared at me. Through me. I was simply smiling and waving in an extremely nonchalant way (I don’t like to draw tons of attention to myself when sitting alone in a bar, as you know).
I gave up.
Later, as I was leaving the bar, the woman followed me through the parking lot yelling, “Rebecca! Rebecca!” I stopped and turned. She was extremely friendly with her hellos and I said, “I smiled and waved at you but you just looked at me.” She said, “Well, I didn’t know who you were.”
So what? So you didn’t know this non-threatening, friendly person? And? You can’t even give a tiny, courteous half-smile to a stranger?
That’s just pathetic!
I don’t think we all need to go around hugging each other all the time, but some simple niceties wouldn’t be such a bad thing, really.
Still, I continue to try to be nice. I try to be aware of my surroundings and the people with whom I come in contact. Not foolishly or unsafely, mind you, but humanly.
I was changing trains on the Metro during rush hour. I was moving along with the crowd when two teen aged African American boys barreled through the crowd in the opposite direction. They literally plowed into an African American woman walking in front of me. I felt sorry for her! They really crashed into her! Just as I was reaching my arm out to her to make sure she was okay, she yelled, “Why don’t you knock the white b*tch down?!?!”
How did that become a race issue? And what did either of us do to deserve being pushed aside on the platform?
Ralph Ellison explored the racial issues and felt his nameless character was invisible because the white man is blind to the black man. I completely understand the rationale behind that commentary, but the whole book, “Invisible Man”, put me on an extremely confusing train of thought. The Race Issue is a tough one. One we’ve been discussing and administering a small healing to for as long as we can remember.
Is it acceptable to be racist or prejudiced (let’s take this beyond black and white and talk about homosexuality, handicaps, women ... ) out of sheer ignorance?
Growing up in the milky white Midwest, it was not a tiger we caught by the toe when deciding who was “It”. And no one told us that was wrong until we were old enough to figure it out on our own (which we thankfully did). But who taught us that in the first place?
And while that didn’t inspire a single adult to run from the screen door of the duplex, tell one joke about a guy with a speech impediment trying to buy birdseed (come back when you can talk better), and watch how quickly your mom flies out the door to wash your mouth out with Lava (don’t need no birdseed, but you want a dead bird?).
Nevertheless, I like to take it beyond that, to all assumptions and prejudices. We all pride ourselves on being “different” and yet hate each other for no other reason than our differences. It’s difficult to make sense of that. And how much of our past do we cling to for sentimental reasons without becoming bitter? How many reminders of our past pain do we need to keep around in our attempt to forget?
Well, of course, we can never forget the past if we expect to make a better future, but to what extent? I am not just talking about the vast collective past of the huge issues, I am even talking about our little personal pasts, as well.
I am just asking rhetorical questions, here. I like books that make me think. I look for that in my relationships and in my entertainment. I like when someone plays Devil’s Advocate, even if it has to be me. It’s a dangerous role to play sometimes, but it’s worth it, I think, in the long run. I know people who cannot think rhetorically or abstractly. It’s all, for lack of a better term, black or white with them. These people frustrate me.
I was in a psychology class in the Air Force where we were discussing Nostradamus. Indifferently, I asked the room, “Well, couldn’t someone just read his predictions and make them happen? I mean, I could read all of that and take steps to ensure I became the next Antichrist.”
As the instructor gave an upside down smile and uttered, “Hmmmmmmm...” the precious angel sitting behind me handed me a ticket for God with a pitiful little look on her face.
Another time, in my passion for intellect and conversation, playing Devil’s Advocate actually cost me a friendship when one of these it’s This or That and Nothing In Between people didn’t like my question: If you are going to do something that would disappoint a loved one, and simply not doing it is not an option, is it better to be honest about doing it or is it better to lie about doing it?
Just a question. I did not, at any point, state MY opinion, I just asked a question. But, that led to the person denouncing all my values and put an end to a longtime friendship.
And while I am wondering about things:
How much of our lives depend on the every day decisions we make? In Invisible Man, I felt the story took us on the journey of a favorably budding young man full of hope and promise. Each decision he made led him to a future farther and farther than where he had planned to arrive and forced him to question not only everyone around him, but also himself. One innocent decision after another changed the entire course of his life until he felt invisibility was the only way to live.
So how many of our decisions change our fate? You could ask the folks who missed their plane on September 11, 2001. They would give you a much different answer than I, who missed my flight on July 25, 2008, would give you. How quickly can we rise to fame or fall from grace based on the simplest decisions we make? I am not talking about the kinds of decisions Robert E. Lee or Sophie had to make, I am talking about when you choose to get gas at the beginning of the trip vs getting it along the way. The little things.
Are any of us really THAT different? Don’t we all just move along making little choices and hoping we end up where we wanted to? Or, sadly, are we shocked at our final destiny? While we certainly believe one man can make a difference, are the rest of us really invisible?