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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sans Glasses, Sans Shame

Today I went for a walk without my glasses. I didn't expect it to be the information-laden, near-revolutionary experience it became.
I'm nearsighted, and have worn glasses for more than 40 years. Yes, they improve my vision (I'll never forget my first day of assisted vision, when I realized those green clouds atop trees were masses of individual leaves), but they've served a less-beneficial function.
They particulars aren't important now, but I grow up in a family environment that was harmful in many ways. As a result, I became many things at early age: shame-filled, fearful, anxious, and hypervigilant.
Glasses helped me see better, but also became a tool that fed my hypervigilance and shame. In my waking hours I am like a small, relentless lighthouse, constantly searching my environment--especially others' faces--to gather and gauge microscopic indicators of impending danger, approval, or the bloom of disgust and ridicule.

Shame and Glasses
We think of shame as a solo experience, but it's not. Shame, Dr. Judith Herman reminds us, is always a relational experience. Shame requires an Other, even if existing only in the mind of the person shamed/afraid of being shamed. Here she quotes psychologist H.B. Lewis:
Shame is one's own vicarious experience of the other's scorn. The self-in-the-eyes-of-the-other is the focus of awareness...The experience of shame often occurs in the form of imagery, of looking or being looked at. Shame may also be played out as an internal colloquy, in which the whole self is condemned.
Herman's identification of the differences between guilt and shame emphasize the role of the real or imagined Other:
Whereas shame is focused on the global self in relation to others,
guilt is focused on a specific action that the person has committed.
Shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is "split,"

imaging the self in the eyes of the other; by contrast, in guilt, the
self is unified. Shame is an acutely painful and 'disorganizing'
; guilt may be experienced without intense effect. Shame
engenders a desire to hide, escape, or lash out at the person in
whose eyes one feels ashamed. By contrast, guilt engenders the
desire to undo the offense...
That's a pretty accurate description of how I go through much of life: always trying to "small" myself, and always thinking of how others view and value me. It is not an easy life. Although I desire not to seek this information, I usually feel unsafe unless I do.
But today--without my glasses--I couldn't scan for the microscopic changes, the shift in the eyebrow, the incipient curl in the lip, and so I didn't. What freedom!
It was only today that I realized how much I changed myself, tried to transform myself to engender safe treatment by strangers on the street. The calibrations-face: Welcoming? Disarmed? Serious? Uninterested? Charming? Sexy? Eye contact: Yes? No? If yes,  duration? The belly: Tight torque or medium? The gait: Slow and measured? Sexy lope? Brisk?
The freedom wasn't in not seeing (my vision's good until about 6 feet out), but of lacking the tool to search, to dig for information in the faces of passers-by, and choosing not to do so. Today I had a respite from a burden I never knew I carried, unshackled from a labor so automatic it was unknown. I was free for that hour, and safe.
Of course I came home and cried.

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