When I was in high school my philosophy teacher, Mr. Linn (yes, I had a philosophy teacher in high school) told me that the quote, “To be is to be seen” is attributed to Jean Paul Sartre. At least I think he said it was Sartre, I might be mis-remembering. I could look it up, but I prefer to cling to the notion that Sartre said, “To be is to be seen.”
I’ve always taken the statement, “To be is to be seen” to mean that we exist, in no small part, because we are seen, because the gaze of (the) other(s) beholds us. If this is true, if “to be is to be seen” that means that other people play a huge role in defining what our existence looks like. Our “being” isn’t self-determined. It isn’t something that resides deep within us. It isn’t our soul. It’s whatever the beholder sees. In an ideal world there’s a synergy between what is seen and what we actually believe we are showing, but this needn’t be the case. I believe that Mr. Linn used the example of a child who is caught stealing an apple. The person who sees the child stealing says, “I see a thief.” Imprisoned by the gaze of the other the child is no longer just a child but a thief as well.
The gaze of the other is powerful. Really powerful. It’s powerful because it can define us. It can apply values and identity to our “being.” It’s also powerful because we want to be seen.
Lately I’ve had occasion to know just how deeply human beings want to be seen. I know it because I’ve been in dialogue with someone who was made to feel invisible by another person. Not being seen made this person feel like they didn’t matter, like they had no worth, like they didn’t exist.
Our eyes are limited. There’s much that we inevitably don’t see. There’s much we’re unwilling to look at. Often we’re focused on some things and some people at the expense of others. We’re all guilty of applying our gaze in a way that makes another person feel trapped and we’re all guilty of averting our gaze and ignoring someone that wants and needs to be seen.
There’s a Jewish blessing recited each morning that thanks God for being pokeach ivrim– opening the eyes of the blind. Maybe it’s a blessing for learning how to look.