The Visibility Engine

Yesterday I read two articles, one called On the Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, and the second called, Mom’s Invisible Hand:What Men Got Wrong About the Economy. What they have in common is a discussion of how women – in different ways, and at different points in their lives, are rendered invisible. The first piece describes how as women grow older, particularly if they’re single, they cease to be paid attention to by men – not simply sexually, but at all. The author describes a conversation with another middle-aged woman, in which she had the shock of recognition that when she retired men simply ceased to see her:

I said:
So the cars don’t stop for you when you want to cross the street anymore?
She shook her head. I said:
You ask a younger man for directions at the railway station and he ignores you?
She nodded. I said:
You have an interesting conversation with a couple of men and a younger woman enters your circle, and the conversation is suddenly over?
She nodded and I finally threw the ace on the table:
Men you know are leaving their middle-aged wives to date women who are in their twenties and early thirties?
She raised her glass of champagne.

The second piece was a review of a book published this month (which I aim to go out and read immediately) that explodes Adam Smith’s idea of how economics work. His theory is that societies are made up of self-interested individuals, and it’s through each individual’s expression of self-interest that markets are created, and that is the basis of communal interaction. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” Smith says in The Wealth of Nations, “but from their regard to their own interest.” The author of the book under review, Katrine Marçal, points out “Smith, the originator of what we now call economics, may have imagined a table set with self-interest-filled plates, but he didn’t cook his own meals, nor did he pay anyone to do it for him. He didn’t go from one devotee’s house to another like an ancient Greek, and he didn’t sit at a patron’s table like a court painter. Instead, he had his mommy do it.”

She points out that Smith completely ignores all the labor that was traditionally done altruistically, by mothers and wives. Of course, these are not the only kinds of altruistic labor, but they – we- are an entire class of people who are rendered invisible, and indeed, non-existent, by Smith’s description of how societies work. In fact, once one begins to think about how much labor is done for love, it really renders Smith’s theory nearly nonsensical -or at least that is Marçal’s point.

But simply putting this in terms of feminism isn’t nearly enough. Feminism is the rational tool to explode the falsity of the metaphor, but once we have done so, we can see how throughout the world, enormous amounts of labor is rendered invisible precisely because it is not done for pay.

Much of the unrest we see in the world is a result of us rendering one another invisible. Men who no longer are able to provide for their families; workers who are considered unworthy of adequate pay, cogs in a machine to be thrown away at convenience; spouses who are no longer exciting enough; children whose sexuality confounds their parents’ expectations; people whose ancestors were brought here in chains, and whose chains remain, heavy and dragging as they attempt to rise up; people with disabilities whose communities cannot be bothered to recognize them more than one day a year, if that; members of churches and synagogues who are never seen, because when they come no one knows who they are.

We are living in a society in which everything has become commodified. Synagogues (and churches, too, by the way) are shrinking because people are expecting services for their dues, rather than thinking of dues as a tithe or gift or korban, even, given by members of the community in order to maintain its functions and ties. We somewhere along the way easily accepted the idea that we should run or shuls by “the business model” not thinking that perhaps that would be our destruction as people began to think that we should be consumer-friendly rather than  demanding that we rise to a life of service.

Because we think that being a customer makes us someone whose opinions matter, who will be listened to, who will be visible.But it doesn’t – it rather renders us invisible as anything but one more source of cash, rather than a neighbor, a spouse, son or a daughter.

As the women in our two essays notice,being invisible as ourselves is one of the most painful things that can happen. It is to be rubbed out, made unimportant, irrelevant. And the religious community should be the very thing most resistant to invisibility: In Beresheit, when Hagar runs away into the desert, a slave – the epitome of invisibility, someone who is so irrelevant she can be used as incubator for someone else’s child – all of a sudden -to her mind -God sees her. And she sees God see her. She names God – the first person ever to do so, “El Ro’i”  God who sees me, because, she says, “I have seen God who has seen me.”

The act of seeing one another is the most powerful act there is.  And the community of faith should take on the labor of making sure that each of us is seen, not as the world does, but as God sees us הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַיהוָה יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב as it says in 1 Shmuel 16:7, “Humans see only with the eyes, but God sees what is in the heart.” Age should not make us invisible, gender of any stripe shouldn’t render us hated or silenced, race shouldn’t be a reason to live in fear or poverty or exclusion.  Communities are not service providers. They are, when healthy, visibility engines.

Just as we cannot see God with our eyes, nothing of value can be seen that way. Our job is to see as God sees, or at least to do our best to make the invisible visible.

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