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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

Becoming Visible

I’m standing in front of a long bay of sinks in the airport restroom, vainly skimming my hands under the automated soap dispenser. No soap comes out, so I move to the right and try the next one. Nothing happens. A woman appears on my left and holds her hands under the soap dispenser I just tried. I begin to say, “that one appears to be out of soap,” when to my surprise a squirt of white foam shoots onto her hand. As nothing seems to be coming out of the dispenser I am currently trying, after she departs, I move back to the left and try the first one again. Still nothing. A woman walks up behind me and deftly swipes her hands under the dispenser to my right. Apparently she has witnessed the whole exchange, as she comments, “You must be a ghost!” She doesn’t know how close she is to the truth . . .

It happens to me time and time again. Automated water and soap dispensers fail to register my presence. The hand dryer in the movie theater restroom stubbornly refuses to blow air on my wet hands but happily dries the hands of the patrons before and after me. I gaze in the mirror and wonder why my presence is not registered by these automated devices. It isn’t until I am standing in line at Target with my large orange shopping cart that I have my epiphany. Another shopper with her own similarly laden cart literally runs over me to take my place in line and then, realizing her mistake, says, “I didn’t even see you there!” It is the moment when I realize I am invisible.

I don’t know why this is a surprise to me. I actually prefer to not be noticeable. I envy Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak, his ability to slip in and out of places without anyone knowing he is there. If no one notices me, I can observe quietly, and participate if I choose, or avoid if that seems safer, and slip out without making any mistakes that will possibly be remembered and judged later.

I was rocking my colicky first-born baby girl when my mother casually remarked, “When you cried like this I would put you in the attic so I couldn’t hear you.” My mother and father were both Holocaust survivors so her comment actually sparked relief rather than despair. I finally had a narrative for my deeply rooted but seemingly unwarranted fear of abandonment. The absence of divorce or other overt types of disruption in my family history made me question the validity of this fear so I was relieved to know there was a reason I desperately feared intimacy because of the risk of abandonment that could follow. I knew my mother was not offered secure attachment by my grandmother and then was further traumatized by her years in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia as an adolescent. She loved me the best she could. But my infant self did not have this historical perspective and could not make sense of being left alone to cry. The collapse into silence and despair that ensues when we let babies “cry it out” left me believing that my needs were not important, and that I was not worth asking for my needs to be met. I learned to be accommodating, to figure out what other people needed and then try to provide that in order to be found worthy and lovable.

Years later I would read, “Because most of our personality is no more than a collection of conditioned reactions, fears, and beliefs and is not our true Self, our identification with it results in a profound self-abandonment. The experience of our identity has shifted from our true nature to the shell of defenses that we have had to develop.” (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Riso & Hudson, p. 35).

Profound self-abandonment.That resonated with me. I had abandoned my self in order to be accepted by others. How could I possible connect with others if I was not connected to myself? Attending to myself had always felt selfish to me, a concept reinforced by my (mis)understanding of my Christian faith. Now I realized that attending to my inner self was neither selfish nor sinful and that failing to do so could also be potentially dangerous. I could not truly love others well without first loving myself well. I also could not ask for what I needed without the self-awareness to discover that I even had these unmet needs.

Working with horses in equine therapy has been an important catalyst in my journey to owning my presence. Horses communicate clearly with their large bodies and expect others to do the same. Passivity eventually invites aggression. For the sake of both safety and a good relationship, I had to learn to have assertive energy and make my requests clearly and confidently around my equine partners.

“You are the God who sees me,” says Hagar in Genesis 16:13 after being rejected by her mistress Sarah and left alone to die in the desert while carrying Abraham’s son. Deep down, we want to be seen. Our deepest desire is to be deeply known, accepted and loved, and our greatest fear is that once someone deeply knows us, and sees all of the shameful, dark secrets we try to hide, we can never be truly accepted and loved. We all mistakenly believe that we are the exception, that somehow our sins are darker and more awful than anyone else’s. Until we make peace with our common, shared humanity, we will fall into the trap of comparison and hide our true selves from each other out of our fear of failure and humiliation. The public “ambassador self” we send out in place of our real self to interact with the world may look shinier and more appealing but is actually a hollow and empty shell we hide behind while our true, uniquely beautiful self trembles with longing and loneliness; waiting to be discovered and beheld and loved.

This February marks the third anniversary of my second assault. After this attack I remember my mother remarking to my sister that I was an easy target because I was “so small.” I realize that today I do not see myself as “small.” I fought back and my attacker fled! I know I have a presence much larger and more powerful on my side; the One I call my God and my Protector. The video footage from a security camera mounted on a garage on the street where the assault occurred shows my attacker running away, looking over his shoulder in fear. For several weeks after the incident, I watched that video over and over with a sense of satisfaction.

I find myself in another airport restroom, poised in front of the sink. I take a deep breath, and hold my hands under the soap dispenser. A dollop of frothy white falls into my waiting palms. I rub my hands back and forth, then wave them under the faucet. Nothing. My breath catches. Then, a stream of water gushes over my soapy hands. The unseen becomes seen. Broken pieces become whole. The invisible becomes visible.

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