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.

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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.