The psychologist William James (brother of novelist Henry) once observed that there could be no more dread punishment than to go through one’s daily life utterly and irremediably ignored. (Whenever I use the word “ignored,” I hear its cousin: “ignorance.”)
I highly recommend that you read everything by William James that you can get your hands on. Some critic or another once wryly opined that William was the novelist and Henry the psychologist. William James’s “Principles of Psychology,” though published before the turn of the century, remains an amazing work, combining personal observation, lucid and lively prose, and scientific research. Several of his theories have, I suppose, long since been disproved or dismissed. But I’m not qualified to discuss that. I am qualified, however, to observe (with awe) the beauty of the mind that gave life and voice to these theories.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be ignored. And about the craving for earthly (or, more ambitiously, heavenly) attention.
I have nothing profound to report — a confession that may bring your morning’s read to a full stop and send you in another direction. Sorry to have saved the truth for the fourth paragraph.
Because of several recent business trips, I’ve been spending a lot of time just sitting and waiting for connecting or delayed flights in major airports. I’m an inveterate people watcher. I’m the guy sitting slightly to the left, occupying your peripheral vision, who’s just looking. I’ve been that guy since I was a kid and would sit with my brother and mother waiting for my traveling salesman dad to arrive at one of the gates at Houston’s Hobby Airport.
This was the 1960s. There were all kinds of personal scenes being played out in Hobby. The drama of the returning soldier or the son going off to boot camp. The drama of the rebellious child — the only person wearing clothing that didn’t quite make sense in the tableau — refusing to be hugged by her presumed oppressors as she was about to fly off to college. The drama of the family members called back “home” by the death of someone they hadn’t telephoned in years. The drama of the man who was “going places”: the ambitious guy, wearing wingtips and a fedora, on his way up in the company.
Aside from the occasional bright-blue blouse and tie-dyed shirts, I don’t recall a lot of color in the Hobby Airport scenes circa 1960s. The palette was predominantly one of browns, dark blues, grays, and whites.
There was (or did I imagine it?) a certain expectation of you, the public actor. An expectation about how you dressed and even how you walked. In the South, at least, there was always the possibility of complete strangers looking at you, smiling, nodding, or tipping their hats. (Of course, in certain places, if you were black, you were ignored altogether or scrutinized all too carefully.)
This is now the year 2000. Some scenes are similar, but others have changed greatly.
The other day in Newark, I saw a beautiful woman who was almost naked. I know that this was for display purposes, for grabbing attention. Certainly she caught a lot of eyes. But not everyone’s. By my estimate, nearly 65 percent of the people she passed — mostly men — didn’t seem to notice her. I don’t think this was a rare case of men being polite or married or both. It was just what I reckon to be the thickening crust or the whiting-out dreamlike trance that keeps us impervious to each other in public places.
As you pass through the sea of faces, it is harder to find even the hint of a smile or a simple acknowledgment.
Now there are many ambitious men and women. Sometimes they stride like Titans through the concourse. As they pass me, I would swear they are on horseback.
There are opportunists in our midst. It is easy to spot them — coyotes looking for a quick meal. They’re waiting at the gate for someone, but not any one person in particular. Their eyes are furtive.
Now, for better or worse, there is no “social script.” No one expects anything of me except for the basics. It doesn’t matter what I wear. It barely matters that I am clothed at all. The colors are bright. And yet there are almost no eyes to see them.
As an observer, I know that after a certain age (especially in America), absent obvious physical beauty or wealth or status, we all become invisible. This may seem overly harsh or too much a generalization. But I am just reporting what I have seen.
The poorest and the oldest among us are the most invisible. But invisibility isn’t just a fact of life for the poor or the aged. For most of us, it is our fate to wake one morning only to find ourselves stirred into “the brown of the mob.”
This is our “first death,” this being ignored. Perhaps, in the wisdom of things, this death prepares one for another kind of indifference. In the words of a haunting Elvis Costello song, “Banish all dismay / Extinguish every sorrow / If I’m lost or I’m forgiven / The birds will still be singing.”
In his wonderful book “Love and Will,” Rollo May discusses the word “attention,” its Latin roots, and the word hidden within it: “tend.” How might the paying of attention be like tending a garden? How might the growth of any loving relationship be transformed by this tending?
And now, more than 20 years after having read May’s book, I sit in airports — at 43, balding and pudgy, on the threshold of my own invisibility — wondering how our public lives might be renewed by tending, by simple nods and smiles and tips of hats.
And where stands the web in all of this? I don’t know. I see the notebook lids open on laps and the grand excuses not to look up.
Maybe the traveler is exchanging emails with a loved one or a colleague.
Or maybe his red-rimmed eyes are anxiously scanning the news summaries, the email subject headlines, and the stock prices. It does not occur to him that this habit of scanning pervades his entire life. He is always scanning, calculating the black pluses or red minuses in conversations with his colleagues and loved ones alike.
He looks up for a moment to scan the passing crowds. Some, like the best cops, using only the edges of their eyes, scan him right back.