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Embracing Invisibility

Health, Safety, and Well-being Faculty
December 1, 2022 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 1, February 2023

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Pete Mather serves as the senior associate editor for the Journal of College and Character and is a professor in higher education and student affairs at Ohio University. He is providing this column in Connexions based on his 2021-2022 academic year sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Pete has been interviewing innovative thinkers about the future of student engagement in higher education, reading on the topic of higher education reform, and has been on a soul-searching mission to discover ways of encouraging best models of practice for today's and tomorrow's students. This column focuses on how higher education faculty and administrators can promote moral development in an evolving higher education environment.

Please see his reflection/adventure/sabbatical blog here

Nearly 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with President Jimmy Carter and an election observation team to Indonesia. At the time, I was serving as the director of educational programs at the Carter Center, the headquarters of President and Mrs. Carter’s global humanitarian work. The journey I took to Southeast Asia was designed to support a free and fair election in the largest Muslim country in the world; it was the country’s first-ever democratic election of a president. In the aftermath of 9-11, this symbol of democracy was a significant global event, and I felt honored to be part of it, and proud of my connection with the Carter Center.

A week before leaving from Atlanta for Indonesia, I was browsing through literature on the Asian region in the Carter Center’s Peace Pavilion library. I discovered a periodical called the “Far East Asian Financial Review.” The cover of the issue I held in my hands displayed a shadow of a man in a gun scope. The heading read, “Al Qaeda Targeting Prominent Westerners in Indonesia.” Cleary I was unnerved by this story as I was going to travel with a former president of the United States. Upon reading the story, I told one of my colleagues, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be recognized—to be someone. Ironically, I now want to get lost in the crowd.”

Wishing for invisibility is indeed rare for me. Throughout my professional life, at times I have felt seen and at times neglected.  Almost always, I have appreciated being recognized, and have been disappointed when I’ve perceived that I was ignored or unappreciated. During my sabbatical, as I was often camping in remote areas, I was keenly aware that I was living in an uncommon state of sustained invisibility. It was a circumstance that I reflected on regularly. I came to the realization that, in my regular work life, I often drew self-worth from the affirmation and acknowledgement I was receiving from others, both professionally and socially. During these extended periods of aloneness during my western adventure, I began to appreciate my own company in a new way. I became more connected to myself as a companion, without the same powerful need for social recognition and approval.

Being seen is a basic human need. People across demographic groups employ social media to gain attention (as well as enrich relationships and obtain information). Stebleton et al. (2022) recently researched ways social media engagement relates to first-year students’ sense of belonging and well-being. Perhaps it is no surprise that social media can both enhance a sense of connection and can undermine connection and students’ self-worth. While at times social media promoted social cohesion, it was also sometimes viewed as a time-wasting trap, a vehicle for social comparison, and a forum for rejection.

In the study by Stebleton and his colleagues, participants pointed out that positive interactions came from posts that reflected common challenges—those with which students could identify. Put another way, students benefited from those posts that helped them feel less alone and less rejected. In his popular podcast, WorkLife, social psychologist Adam Grant stated, “authenticity without empathy is selfish.” And, undoubtedly, selfishness can ultimately breed social isolation. So, authenticity and vulnerability are not always the path to personal well-being or to prosocial engagement.

On my sabbatical adventure, the same conditions that led to my social invisibility led me to see myself more clearly. One day, early in my travels, I was hiking near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. I recall considering the connection I had to the geographic realities near me. I had recently been reading Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book, “The Art of Living,” in which he presented the idea of interbeing, the notion we live in connection with all things. As I walked around the Tower, I was aware of natural sculpting of this remarkable edifice, formed in subterranean earth over millennia, now towering nearly 1,000 feet above ground level. I recall thinking that the ground I was walking on had been there much longer than I. I sat and observed a large tree and considered its age and what it had experienced before I visited it—the animals that had rested on it; the wind that had blown against it; and the pressure underground, providing the delicate balance between supporting and restricting the roots’ growth and movement.

Peter MatherIn a sense, I was disappearing into the ecosystem. As I seemed to be receding into both the grandeur and the simplicity of my surroundings, I experienced a sense of fullness. It was a sensation that exceeded any feeling I had accepting professional awards or receiving hundreds of “likes” for a post on Facebook or Instagram. On that day in Wyoming there was a paradox in my simultaneous experience of embracing my relative insignificance alongside an electric sense of being alive. A study by Paul Piff and colleagues (2015) demonstrated that such experiences not only boost one’s sense of being alive, but also increase altruism and compassion. As explained by Akiko Busch, “our most affecting experiences so often have to do with a sense of psychic diminishment. The acceptance that each of us is a bead of mist in the weather of the world is what connects us most” (Busch, Ch. 11).

As I consider these experiences now, I believe members of the higher education community—faculty, staff, and students—can benefit from embracing invisibility. As we seek fulfillment through being seen and known, we would do well to also consciously embrace opportunities to disappear by mindfully observing the mysteries of the world around us—especially the natural world. While I was in Wyoming, meditating on the tree, a snake emerged from under a plant near me. As the snake moved toward me, I had a strange sense of security. I backed up and gave the snake space. I didn’t panic, as I recognized I was just part of a vast ecosystem, gladly sharing space with other sentient beings. Gratefully, the snake turned away from me as something else in the magnificent landscape drew its attention. As I released my need for attention and control, I enjoyed simply being there, amid the seen and unseen, where I was barely visible.

References

Busch, A. (2019). How to disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency. Kindle book. Penguin Press.

Grant, A. (2020). Authenticity is a double-edged sword. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/authenticity-double-edged-sword-adam-grant/

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (2017). The art of living: Peace and freedom in the here and now. HarperOne.

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000018

Stebleton, M. j., Kaler, L. S., & Potts, C. (2022). “Am I even going to be well-liked in person?”: First-year students’ social media use, sense of belonging, and mental health. Journal College and Character, 23(3), 210 – 226. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2022.2087683