Wanting to Be Seen

There’s a TV commercial for Nationwide Insurance featuring Mindy Kaling. In the commercial, she does all kinds of goofy stuff, until right at the end she says “Can you see me?”

The gist is something about how you are not invisible to the insurance company.

It’s memorable and funny. Sadly, however, this situation is, in many ways, all too true.

In modern societies, a vast majority of people are essentially invisible to each other, passing through their daily lives in buildings and on the streets, anonymously. Never speaking, never touching.

Our lives are empty because of this.

In his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger says “A person living in a modern or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

He goes on to say that, in a style of living that is most ideal to the human mental state, “day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people.”

This is something that has been on my mind in recent years. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to one another, we turn to so-called social media. And a lack of privacy is not always a bad thing. In fact, privacy has an ugly twin. It’s called loneliness, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people.

Wanting to be seen, to be understood, to be truly known is a very human feeling to have. Without it, we find ourselves, according to Junger, in a civilization “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”


I can’t recommend Tribe highly enough. It is a short, easy read, and Junger presents his well-considered thoughts in an engaging fashion. It should be required reading for anyone living in a modern, westernized society.

A Name So Odd It Could’ve Been Made Up

My oldest sister was named Cecilie.

That is not a typo. It is not Cecile, or Cecilia. It is Cecilie (pronounced similar to Cicely Tyson‘s name, but with a short “e” on the first syllable).

My other sister, Jennifer, and my brother, Peter, and I have extremely common names. But Cecilie’s name was as uncommon as ours was common. It was in the polar opposite direction from our names. It was as if my parents began naming their children with a heavy dose of uniqueness, and then changed strategies when number two arrived. With child three and four, they went the straight Biblical route.

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Cecilie and me, about nine months before she died.

I feel that Cecilie didn’t like her name much. As the years went by, she seemed more and more tired of the spelling corrections and the pronunciation corrections. My mother once mentioned that she had offered my sister the opportunity to change her name, but she declined. Perhaps my sister was too invested in it by then. I don’t know what name she would have preferred. She never told me.

In fact, no one in my family ever talks about why Cecilie had such a painfully unique name. It is like a taboo subject. We talk more about why my uncle is gay than we do my own sister’s given name.

Maybe I’m the only one who finds it odd that we have two classic Biblical names, one name that was the single most popular name for newborn American girls every single year from 1970 to 1984, and then we have Cecilie, a name so odd that it could have been made up, like Dweezil.

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Names carry a lot of weight. People name children after themselves, sometimes to the third or fourth generation. They name children after their parents or grandparents. Some people make sure everyone in the family has the same initials. Family (last) names can influence who you are and how people perceive you. Kennedy, Bush, or Schwarzenegger, for instance.

So to question one’s own parents about why a name was chosen over another seems to flirt with one’s own existence. For instance, my father was the third in his family to bear his name, and many thought that his first-born son–that’s me–would also carry the name. Instead, I was given a completely new name.

I have some issues with my name, but to ask why I wasn’t named after my father would make me appear ungrateful. After all, I am healthy and independent. It’s what’s inside that counts, right?

In addition, I find it hard to imagine myself not being Matthew at this point. Would my life have been different if I had another name? Would Cecilie’s have been?

My sister’s life was not an easy one. She had an undiagnosed mash-up of Tourette syndrome, possibly some minor brain damage, and something from the Autism spectrum. She had scoliosis beginning when she was a pre-teen. And she died in 2009 from ovarian cancer a few months before her 48th birthday.

So maybe her name was the least of her problems. But I still wonder.

It Is Hard to Be Kind to Your Parents

It is hard to be kind to your own parents.

Wait…I know that sounds harsh, especially on Fathers’ Day, so let me unpack that a bit.

I think there may be a reason that the Bible tells us–in fact it commands us–to honor our fathers and mothers. Think about it. Why would the ancient Hebrews need God to come down out of Heaven and tell them to honor their fathers and mothers? Is it perhaps because it is not an easy thing to do?

Kindness has been defined by some as empathy and respect for another person.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Me and my dad, 1974.

Empathy is the ability to really be inside another person, as much as that is possible. You can do it with siblings and peers. Can you really empathize with your parents?

Parents, by definition, are of an older generation. They are shaped by social and economic forces that did not shape you. They try to pass their “values” down to you, but out of context, those values can be quaint to the point of being meaningless.

Also, parents change over time just like anyone else. Their parenting styles evolve, their belief systems evolve. No matter how much we’d like them to remain the same person we knew as children, they are not, and neither are you.

My mother used to say that each child in a family is raised by a slightly–or sometimes wildly–different person. That would mean that my view of my father and mother is different from that of my brother and two sisters. And it is. My brother, who is younger, is much angrier at my folks than I am, for good reasons. Some writers publish childhood memoirs, only to hear from brothers and sisters that they didn’t remember it that way at all.

Parents also have privileges or struggles that we often don’t have. This can make us sad or angry at them. It can make it very hard to be kind. So how, exactly, are we to empathize?

As for respect, that is also complicated. Respect is something that must be earned from another person. To demand respect because of your position, age, wealth, or any other reason, results in bullying and hypocrisy.

Am I saying that parents must earn our respect? Yes, I am in a way. We cut them a lot of slack, because they are our parents. But ultimately, they have to earn that or risk losing everything that a family is supposed to stand for.

So, it is hard to be kind to one’s own parents. We do it anyway, because we are expected to–by our society, by our culture, by God. But let’s not reduce it to greeting-card sentimentality and phony familial relationships.

Let’s be honest about how hard it can be, and then forgive ourselves for not always being very kind.

Remembering What We’ve Accomplished

On Friday, President Obama had this to say when visiting Hiroshima, Japan:

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

His thoughts are my thoughts too, this Memorial Day. Technology does have a way of finding its own worst use.

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’ve been and where we are, and where we are headed, as a nation and as a society.

Maybe it’s too much thinking. But we are all living with some measure of discomfort.

It can’t be too much to ask that we could be putting our efforts toward making things just a bit better.

Poison Gas, Driverless Cars, and You

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist who discovered the method for creating synthetic ammonia for fertilizer went on to invent the chlorine gas used to devastating effect by the Germans in World War I. He did it because he loved his native country and believed in their ability to win the war.

In the 1930s, a medical scientist was hired by the leading manufacturers of asbestos products to conduct a study of the health risks. He downplayed the negative effects of asbestos exposure on workers at factories and job sites, believing that American industrial progress and fidelity to authority was more important than the human lives being put at risk.

The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did so out of a sincere belief that they were doing their duty to protect America.

Should these people have stopped somewhere in the process and reflected on what, exactly, they were doing? I think they should have.

Science is not always pure, and technology has a way of finding its own worst use.

I think about these things as I read stories of the mad rush to invent driverless cars. We are due for some self-reflection about whether this really is the direction we, as a society, should be taking.

Google's Chris Urmson

Google’s Chris Urmson driving down the wrong path.

The scientists and technicians who are developing autonomous vehicles sincerely believe in the potential benefits of their work, I’m sure. They explain how it will bring mobility to the elderly or the disabled, save countless lives by avoiding car crashes, improve fuel efficiency, and require less space for parking lots.

Who could be against that, right?

Except that driving a car is, most of the time, a solitary act. Single-occupant vehicles on any given workday make up more than half of cars on the road. With estimates ranging as high as 76 percent, it is clear that we still prefer to drive alone.

And other emerging transportation technologies, such as the ride-sharing models that are being pushed by for-profit companies Uber and Lyft, perhaps are not as sustainable as they want us to believe.

In this world filled with countless ways to communicate and travel, we are still consuming resources and are more lonely than ever.

So instead of creating yet more ways of being alone, society instead should be putting additional effort into social means of transportation–bicycles, buses, trains and other forms of transit. It is only by looking each other in the eye day in and day out that we maintain our ability to be civil and retain our essential humanity. That, and it uses less roadway.

The driverless cars that some believe will help humankind may instead be individual coffins.