It’s a cultural flaw, observed and decried by many, that the marks of a woman’s increasing maturity reduce society’s belief in her sexual appeal and thus render her invisible. We lose our value, apparently, as our skin wrinkles and our tolerance for superficial thinking deteriorates.
I deplore this trend, but it is not what I am writing about this evening. There is another kind of invisibility, one that manifests itself gradually along the slopes and valleys of our spiritual journeying, and I believe it is the reward of dogged perseverance.
First, we must agree that visibility is a complex thing, and I am speaking here only of that type measured by the human eye’s ability to perceive it. It is a manifest thing, approached with lens, pupil, retina, nerve. What is visible can be detected on the skin, on the page, outside the window. What is invisible cannot. But I hope you will stretch a point and let me gather audible, tangible things under this useful word. Eyes, ears, nerves in the tips of our fingers – these are the managers of our outer world.
If we live vigorously, seeking to discover and perfect ourselves, our reality shifts across time so that where once it was mostly visible, mostly outward facing, it becomes mostly invisible, perhaps inward facing, perhaps upward. I don’t know that this journey is linear. In my experience, its facets develop at different times, on different levels. A child’s play may begin with a round, red ball, mostly understood with the eyes and fingers, and in just a few years, the same child may stumble into the wilderness of imagination and spend hours engaged in intricate games that will remain invisible to everyone but herself. But the same child may have no patience, and her lack of patience may be completely visible for decades after she has learned to rely on the invisible people and places of her imagination.
A person living in this world will never be completely visible or completely invisible. But the trend is there – the chain of insight. There are milestones on this path that I was pondering tonight, washing the dinner dishes with my hands, talking to the puppy with my voice, sorting words and impressions in the quiet of my own mind.
Patience is an intangible thing, but impatience is not. Our impatience is often loud and always visible – our faces change, our voices grow shrill, our hands and feet move quickly and irritably. Patience is the invisible thing. When you are patient, you are not grimacing or raising your voice. Your hands and feet are under your control, and so is your irritation. If your patience is visible, it’s not patience. It’s impatience with a mask on, struggling to make a point.
It reminds me of something my father said the summer he refinished the picnic table. When he began the project, the table looked bad. The finish was peeling off and the wood was discolored. After hours of labor, sweat, and persistence, the table looked wonderful. “Now you don’t even notice it,” he said, ruefully. “It just blends in.” The eyesore stood out; the result of his effort looked normal and unremarkable.
Patience is like that.
Like patience, this is a gift most visible in its absence. A person who speaks his words without hearing them, who can’t stand outside his opinions, will commit one solecism after another. He will be the target of frustration or disgust, but he won’t receive these incoming signals. Ironically, a person is much less visible when he can “see” himself, when he can hear what others are saying to him and about him and believe that it might be accurate. He is an integral part of the human whole, not the sore thumb protruding from it.
I think humility is part of this awareness, humility and perception. You need perception to understand what the world believes you are contributing to it, but you also need humility to accept what you perceive when it isn’t attractive or simple to repair.
Much of what disappears from the visible world only moves into the invisible world. This is literally true in the case of death. A person leaves the physical world and enters the spiritual world fully. We bury the body, and cling to love and memory, but nothing that remains to us is visible. But what are we removing from sight when we become patient and self-aware? Has something died in us? Are we burying ourselves in the stifling grip of self-control?
It happens. But I think it happens in error, or as a forward, but not final, step. Patience becomes possible when we are able to relieve our own irritation, when we can soothe or readjust ourselves internally without producing visible signs of the process. We can talk ourselves out of reacting, and actually heal the aggravating feeling behind it. Self-awareness depends on a parallel skill – it’s the ability to believe what we perceive from others, where patience is the ability to believe what we tell ourselves.
Because patience is the most elusive of the gifts I seek in my own life, my meditations at this point left self-awareness behind and focused to a finer point. From visible to invisible, from outer world to inner world, what is the power behind the shift? The silent words that bring me peace and stamina now were not effective, or even available, to me at earlier points in my life. Why are they now?
You answer that question with your own experience, as you must, and I can answer it with mine. For me, it all comes to an upward spiral of imagination, a circular stairway deeper and higher into the mind. Where once imagination was a plaything, or a comfort in loneliness or distress, I believe it’s evolving into the currency of my spiritual existence. It is the reason I can experience the substance of my own thoughts. Imagination makes what I learn visible to me. Yes, visible! Imagination is the inward eye, the sights and songs and memories that are deeply personal, deeply spiritual, essential as air and water are essential. But only because it is no longer fictional. Instead of creating what is not, imagination clothes the bones of truth. If we are experiential beings, imagination is the first small leap into eternity. It is our first experience of the life beyond life, outside of eyes and hands and bodily impressions.
We become invisible only in one dimension. In another, we begin, finally, to appear.