seeing/being seen

It’s just over five years now since I swapped GP work for a simple, menial job, so I could focus on writing. Around the same time, I started a new volunteer role. I also ended fifteen years of karate training to learn yoga instead.

What was this like, all this change at once? Actually, it was rough. I felt anxious, I worried whether I’d made the right decisions. I lost weight without meaning to. Everything I did was unfamiliar—exercise, work, volunteering, writing. There was no place I felt I had expertise. I kept going, and gradually acquired a few skills. But it was a big adjustment, being a beginner in my forties. I also felt the drop in ‘status’ in the eyes of others.

I was treated very differently by surgeons in my new job as a surgical assistant. Several spoke to me rudely, with sarcasm, or with disdain. A few yelled. Some were polite but cool. Only occasionally was I greeted with real warmth, or treated in a truly friendly manner. Even now, working mostly with the same (pleasant) surgeons, I have the occasional job with a new surgeon where I am treated as if I’m some kind of moron. It was a huge change from being an established medical practitioner, with staff and patients who treated me well. My pride was shot down.

Though it hurt, it did me good. I have a better idea of how it feels for others with nasty bosses. And I’ve learnt to ground my sense of self-worth inside me more, rather than looking to others for validation.

Almost worse than the snarky surgeons, though, was something else new—invisibility. In the hospital where I now volunteer, I was amazed how many doctors ‘blanked’ me. Many don’t make eye contact, let alone smile or say hi. Cleaning staff say hello, and nurses greet me by name. If I dressed in a blouse and skirt, with a stethoscope around my neck, would the medicos acknowledge me? I watch them greet other doctors, so I reckon they would.

Perhaps these doctors’ minds are elsewhere, maybe they don’t realise their rudeness, but I tend to think they classify me, in my blue volunteer vest, as a ‘non-person’. I find this fascinating, and yes, being a doctor myself (though these doctors don’t know that), I suspect I’m more sensitive to the way they don’t ‘see’ me. (My pride may be battered but it’s obviously alive and well!) But also, like anyone, I dislike being walked past in a quiet corridor as if I don’t exist.

Maybe I did the same thing to people when I was a hospital doctor. I hope I didn’t, but it’s entirely possible. If so, I’m trying to make up for it. In everyday life, I’m making eye contact more, smiling more. I’m initiating brief chats in different situations, trying to make sure the people I come across feel ‘seen’. Because I know what it feels like to be ‘unseen’, and how that bites.

My recent experiences have been insignificant compared to what other workers endure. But they’ve made me examine my own behaviour. And they’ve taught me to appreciate active kindness, one person really engaging with another. How that attention makes someone else feel valued. And how uplifting that really is.

13 thoughts on “seeing/being seen

    • Thank you, Richard. I’ve been thinking a lot lately – must be the new year or something – glad you found it of some use.
      Hope you and your family have a wonderful 2019! x

  1. Oh, I relate to this! I already had an inkling of what was to come from my medical student days when I worked in the cafeteria of a big hospital and was routinely ‘blanked’ by doctors. Of course, we all experienced it as medical students, who are the lowest on the rungs. The hierarchy in medicine is truly shameful!

    Why do we humans love lording it over others? Is it because we had to crawl our way up and put up with so much shit on the way there that we demand respect once we get to the top?

    I’ll also add that hierarchies aren’t peculiar to medicine. The snobbery and cliques in the writing fraternity can make one feel just as excluded.

    • You’re so right, I remember those student days now (must have blocked those humiliating memories!). I don’t know why some people love taking power trips. Maybe it’s like you say – they felt kicked around on the way up and now they’re getting their own back?

      And you’re right that it’s not only in medicine that these hierarchies exist. What a shame it should be that way, sometimes. Thank goodness for all the people who aren’t like that! I’ve been so lucky here in Brisbane to find other writers at all stages have (mostly) been really friendly to me … though I’m yet to encounter all the issues that must come with being an author, such as you must have dealt with – interacting at writers festivals, on panels, in green rooms, etc. A whole new ball game I suspect! (Hopefully there are still plenty of kind writers to make up for the snobby ones!)

      • You’re right, there are so many kind, generous, warm-hearted writers who want to ‘pay it forward’, and they’re certainly the majority.

        By the way, I forgot to acknowledge how lovely you made this post—you didn’t just whinge (like my comment!), but turned something potentially negative into a reflection on how to live kindly. x

        • I’m really glad to know you’ve come across more helpful writers than unhelpful ones. And your comment wasn’t a whinge but just an honest observation.
          I can find myself getting really peeved about things, and writing about them helps me take a different perspective, but believe me I don’t feel all philosophical at first! x

  2. This thoughtful and gentle analysis of the phenomena of unseen people made me smile, Fiona. I trained as a nurse in the 1950s. In those days nurses wew at the bottom of the heap, unseen, even by medical students who needed us to show them simple tasks and techniques.
    But I think that being an old woman may be even worse for many people. As we age, we become not just unnoticed, but actually invisible in queues, while waiting to be served in shops and even on footpaths. Sexism and ageism are a deadly combination, which is one of the reasons I volunteer and write, to maintain my own sense of being in the world, as well as to encourage others.

    • Oh Maureen, this makes me really sad. In many societies older people are revered and respected, and it would be great if all Australians did the same. I’m so glad you write (and volunteer) – you’re having an impact and being noticed through your words, but also making social connections too.
      I can’t imagine you being overlooked when you are so vibrant, articulate, funny and kind. I guess some people just don’t know any better.

    • Thanks for reading Ashley.
      I’m a bit fascinated with the concept of being actively kind, because I think I used to think I was a ‘good person’ purely because I didn’t kill people, torture animals, etc. Whereas it’s so much more complex than that. I think often of all the ‘good folks’ who stand by and let bad things happen, myself included. So at least in trying to be more actively kind, there is a way to give more of ourselves, even in small ways.

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