The Phantom Witness

November 30, 2014 at 12:00 am

Our need to be seen is forever matched and frequently overwhelmed by our desire to be watched. While one is an intimate connection between two people, the other is a busy one-way street during rush hour. Being watched is a passive and disconnected experience. One that doesn’t demand our involvement. Yet most of us have fantasies of being rock stars and celebrities. We want to be watched, not seen. Knowing the distinction between the two was a life altering experience for me.


Image Courtesy Simon Rankin

Image Courtesy Simon Rankin

Many years ago, my growing interest in theatre and acting lead me to workshop with experienced actors and directors. During these early years in theatre we performed everywhere: in classrooms of schools after the children left, in abandoned halls, under trees, any place that was available and free. As actors we took turns to perform while the others became our audience. It was a symbiotic and safe environment to experiment with the art. One of the exercises in the workshop involved sitting in front of someone and looking into their eyes without saying anything, or doing anything. I had done this exercise before in a different workshop and was familiar with it. I also knew that no matter how familiar I was, it was going to be difficult. Because when you sit in front of another person and look into their eyes, allowing them to look into yours, you let yourself be seen, not watched. Knowing this made no difference, I was just as uncomfortable as the rest of them.


People giggled for no reason, sniffed, sneezed, and coughed, anything to distract them from the exercise. Some started crying. The brave amongst us didn’t stop the exercise when they cried. They let the other person see them cry. Sometimes this made the partner cry too. A bond was forged between us, a connection that didn’t exist before. In those minutes we took away our masks and let the other person in, while they did the same. It was intimate and precious. In those minutes I experienced love for strangers in my workshop. People I had never spoken to before. We stayed that way for only five minutes before we switched partners. With every new person the connection was different. With some it was light and carefree, with others it was painful and with some there was love; just simple, unreasonable, happy love.


When I went home that day, I knew I had changed a little. I felt healed. I started reading about this and stumbled on books that spoke of the cathartic experience of seeing yourself in the mirror. To my surprise this was just as difficult. The urge to brush my hair or straighten my clothes would constantly try and distract me. But it is when I pushed further that the pain started flowing out. Judgments and criticisms about myself and the way I looked, started pouring out. I didn’t like what I saw. I realized then why I didn’t want anyone else to see me. I didn’t approve of the person I was and so letting someone else see me would expose me. I was very conscious about what I would let another person see, and so the natural choice was to not let people see anything. I would let them watch me instead, while I stayed hidden behind the many masks I wore. Over time, as I pushed ahead, the hatred and judgment finally stopped. I felt exhausted. I looked tired. Like someone who didn’t want to carry this burden any further. This was the first time I had really seen myself. All these years I had only watched myself in the mirror.


Seeing myself and letting people see me was a very cathartic experience. It is strange that all of us have delusional dreams and grandiose fantasies of being watched like celebrities and rock stars. These are just ways that we compensate for the fear we have of being seen. We suppress one and overcompensate with the other. After those workshops, I have performed in many theaters to a variety of audiences. None of them felt as intimate as the performances in those classrooms. When the light hits your face, you can’t see the audience, but they can watch you. In those classrooms and under the trees, when we performed to the other students of the workshop, I could see their responses to our act reflect in their eyes. Something I will always cherish more than any performance in a theater.


Amanda Palmer talks about this beautifully in her book “The Art of Asking”. In her richly colorful life she has dabbled in a variety of vocations. She has been a rock star, a massage therapist, an ice cream barista, a naming consultant, a playwright, a director, a waitress, a nude model, a stripper and a human statue called “The eight foot Bride”. Reflecting on the difference between being watched as a stripper and seen as a human statue she writes:


“People would look straight into your crotch. But nobody would look you in the eye. And that drove me crazy”


As a statue she stood on milk crates, dressed as a bride wearing a full-length lace veil, a pair of long white gloves and a wig. She would also paint herself white. The white paint on her face was her mask and made it safe for people to see her and not watch her. She says:


“It is an interesting thing, a white-painted face. Its a historically rich signifier, the onion layer of clown-white cream covering the skin like paper-thin mask, a universal invitation from one human being to another that says: Staring at my face and making eye-contact is acceptable and encouraged.”

I think, the costume and paint ensured it was only the eyes that were human about the statue. So people were drawn to look into it. She speaks about all the connections she made with people who just looked at her and didn’t speak a word. So much more intimate than the people who watched her dance naked as a stripper.

Image Courtesy Jason Jenkins

Image Courtesy Jason Jenkins

We feel a lot safer sharing our vulnerability with strangers. We lock our gaze with people in buses and in traffic more often than we do with friends and family. I have had very intimate and deep conversations with strangers on a train or in a pub. Conversations that would take years for me to have with friends. This is why blogs like Humans of New York work so beautifully. People are more inclined to share with a complete stranger and have them see who they really are, than they are with their friends and family.

The need to be seen and connect with another human being is innate. It is also very discomforting. It makes us vulnerable. We surrender to the moment and let the other person in. Two people sharing a moment of symbiotic exchange of attention. Inside that vulnerability is hidden the beautiful gift of human connection. Something we all crave for. Something that being watched by millions will never compensate for. We do ourselves a grave disservice by suppressing this need.

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does anyone’s life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything -the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day.
You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” – Shall we Dance

Do yourself a favor today. Go find someone you want to see and be seen by, and sit with them for ten minutes. Switch off your phones and turn off the television. Do not engage in a conversation. Just look into their eyes and let them look into yours. Gently observe anything that comes up. It is the quickest way to heal. If you are too scared to do this with someone else do it with a mirror. See yourself today. You have been watching yourself for too long.



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