Thursday, February 16, 2006

#23 Generosity and Invisibility

I was listening one morning to an African American man talk about helping a group of white folks address racism. Someone had said that we white people shouldn't expect black people to help us out all the time, explaining things to us, getting us to see what continues to be so invisible to us. We need to learn to do it for each other. He said that, while it wasn’t his responsibility to help, he had decided years ago that communicating his rage about racism in such situations made nothing better for anybody. By focusing instead on how he could help, he was able to respond to white people's blundering ineptness with power and grace.

Almost immediately after that conversation, in a different experience of invisibility, my husband was biking through Center City and was forced off the road by a big car. The driver was talking on a cell phone and never even saw what he had done. My husband's first response was pure anger at an unawareness that could have killed him. His second was a wish that he would never be as oblivious as that driver. He would choose to see what was going on in the world around him, even if it hurt.

We all want to be seen. At the same time, there are many things in this world, including the generosity of others, that are invisible to us. A friend was telling me of the role he has played in a political group all year--consciously backing the man who anchors and leads the group, bringing warmth and attention to the meetings, maintaining a hopeful and positive tone, making sure that people had fun together. He had chosen to play that role; he was glad to do it. But he struggled with its invisibility. Everyone loved the group, but no one considered that there was effort being expended in making it go so well.

He said that maybe he was learning something of what it's like to be a woman, quietly tending to the needs of the group, intuitively knowing the importance of that work, but weighed down by the total lack of recognition.

And so I thought of the African American man who had decided to be generous with white folks. And I wonder which was harder--his decision to choose generosity over rage, or the invisibility of that choice to those around him. It had certainly been invisible to me. I had liked him, appreciated his accessibility, rested in the lack of guilt or blame I felt in his presence, but I had not seen what lay underneath.

So I am challenged on both fronts: to be generous in the face of unawareness; and to see and more fully appreciate the generosity that comes my way. I like the idea of being generous, and not needing my issues or feelings to take center stage all the time. As a woman, I find that my life goes better when I act on the basis of my love and best thinking around men, rather than focusing on how I’m being treated. Yet I find it difficult to know when a decision to be generous in the midst of unawareness may not be a good one.

I know that if the loving source of my choice or the importance of my work is so invisible that even I can’t see it, we all lose. If I am clear, it may not matter if the recipients of my generosity see it or not (and I certainly don’t want to have an open-hearted impulse transform into a stratagem for extorting appreciation). At such times I can look for support and a place to be seen to others who have made similar choices. At other times it will make sense to look for ways to address the veil that obscures the recipients’ eyes, inviting them to clearer sight.

We are most likely to not see when we are in the positions of greater social power. Much of women's work is invisible to men. People of color stretch in ways that whites rarely know. When we are required to look, it can be painful. I have a working class friend who is very aware of class issues and refuses to be invisible. I chafe at her insistence. Yet since I would choose to be seen, I would choose to stretch to see others and see how my behavior affects them. I would choose to be prodded to grow. Otherwise I stay part of a power dynamic that degrades the quality of all our lives.

I particularly hope that I could take in the loving choice of a man who has a right to be angry and has decided to not direct that anger at me. If I am content with invisibility, I have unaware access to that man's generosity. But I can't know him fully. I can't learn from his struggles. I can't make use of his light to illuminate the parts of my life that remain obscure. I can't give thanks for his gift.

Pamela Haines
July 2004


Post a Comment

<< Home