Dying to be seen

Do you ever wonder at the way that some books just seem to reach you at exactly the right time? Some time ago — long enough ago that I can’t remember who it was or how it happened — someone recommended that I read Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed by Sara Hagerty. I added it to my to-check-out list at the library, and there it sat for months. And then I thought I should finally check it out, so it came home with me one day and then sat in my to-read pile for another few weeks as I made my way through the books ahead of it. But when I finally picked it up, I was immediately struck by these words in the foreward:

The internet is one of those things that’s both a blessing and a curse — a blessing, because of the sheer power of its innovation and how it has given access to information and given voice to so many who never had one, but a curse because it’s creating a new humanity, a new way of doing things, rewiring our being.

We are shifting the way we live in order to create better pictures to post and content to create. Many of us no longer go on a hike and then take a picture to remember it. We want to take a picture to post, so we go on a hike to get that picture. It’s driving us. It’s feeding our insatiable desire to be seen. Be affirmed. Be noticed. Be loved. Be liked.

A few years in our home state of Washington, a guy wanted to get a selfie with a moving train in the background. He wasn’t paying attention to the track he was standing on, and another train sped right into him, killing him instantly.

And this isn’t an anomaly. An entire Wikipedia page is devoted to selfie-related injuries and deaths. We are, literally, dying to be seen. (Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke, pp. 11-12) [here is the Wikipedia page]

After all those months on my library list and weeks in the pile, how strange to have picked this book up the very morning I finally deleted my Facebook account. Not that Unseen is fundamentally about social media or selfie-related mishaps — far from it. But that point in the foreward certainly served to draw me in to Hagerty’s beautiful writing about the value of the unseen life, those moments of intimacy with God that root our entire being and nourish the parts of our life that aren’t in the view of others. The longing to be seen, to be noticed, and to be thought valuable that social media exploits isn’t a bad thing in itself; it’s part of what makes us human. But that longing can’t be satisfied — not wholly, not for very long — by other people. Instead, it is a prompt to turn away from chasing the recognition of other humans and toward the only one who knows and loves us perfecty and completely. Hagerty’s call is to surrender to the hidden life, to seek God in the unseen moments of our days and in the deepest vulnerabilities of our souls, and so to cultivate intimate friendship with the Lord who created us in that most secret of places:

Even as we are known, we are nonetheless born into hiding. “God saw us when we could not be seen,” writes Charles Spurgeon, “and he wrote about us when there was nothing of us to write about.” For the nine months we are encased in the womb, unseen even by the eyes of the woman whose body labors to give us life, we grow from the size of a seed to that of a watermelon. Unseen, we grow about 1,600 times larger than thetiny union of cells we started out as. In that secret place, we are incubated. Hand-hidden. Known. Witnessed. Concealed. Within the hiddenness of the womb, God gives us a glimpse of a forever truth, the truth that quickens and multiplies in secret.

The problem is not that we long for significance but that we are shifty or misguided in where we look for it. When we crave most the eyes of others — their opinions and accolades — we break our gaze with the only eyes that will ever truly see us. We forget the beauty of the Creator-eyes turned toward us, the ones that saw the inception of our lives and loved what He saw. (41-2)

Hagerty speaks most eloquently about those times in our live when we feel unseen: caring for elderly parents or young children, working thankless jobs, dealing with chronic illness, enduring a difficult marriage, or watching our peers get married or have children while we wait for something that feels like it’s never going to happen. These difficult seasons in our lives, she writes, are not accidents but invitations to growth:

… our biggest mistake is to call our hiddenness accidental. You’ve probably heard statements like these: “If I could just get out of this transition and into a role where I’m using my gifts…” or, “When the kids get a bit older and I can leave the house more…” or, “When he’s not sick anymore, I’ll reallybe able to give my life away for God’s kingdom,” or [insert yours here]. We forget that it’s in the interruptions, the waiting seasons, the disappointments that we grow best. (69)

What makes her messages so effective is that Sara Hagerty is writing out of her own experience. After a rocky start to their marriage, she and her husband endured twelve years of infertility before they adopted their four older children (she has since given birth to two more). In these unseen, heartbreaking years Hagerty was learning to sink the roots of her soul deep into God’s love. “Our growing root system,” she writes, “reaches and creeps and drinks, deeply, of a greatness that the world can’t measure, a greatness that even some within the Christian community might not recognize or understand. But the long-term greatness of a tree is always found in the depth and health of its roots” (73). This is the greatness that God calls us to: not a life that is great in the eyes of the world (though this may ceratinly happen, for some) but a life that is centred and rooted in intimacy with him.

Now maybe this call to a life of prayer and growth in the hidden places can sound like a lot of navel-gazing, in that we are more accustomed to hearing calls to spring into action: feed the hungry! clothe the poor! write to your representatives! sponsor a child! start a ministry! write a blog post! quick, quick, quick! do, do, do! But sit quietly and contemplate the goodness of God? Doesn’t that seem a little irresponsible in the face of the world’s many needs?

Hagerty assures us that, in fact, the opposite is true. Intimacy with God is not about doing nothing — it’s about being able to hear clearly, to discern what we are being called to as particular people responding to particular issues, rather than the random flailing that trying to respond to the world’s needs on our own terms often feels like:

On any day, I am overwhelmed by the needs of the world, but my greater need is to interrupt this kneejerk cycling between the cries of the world and my response so that I can cultivate friendship with God. It’s there that I learn that it’s the friends of God who truly change the world. It’s there that I have the depth of friendship that informs the way I respond to the world’s needs.

When I let friendship with God become my first priority — talking to Him, hearing from Him, letting His Word shape my thinking — I align myself with an agenda that does, in fact, help meet the needs of others. But instead of being driven by my limited cost-benefit analysis, I get to tap into the wisdom of the greatest king of the earth and heavens. And as I scoot nearer to Him, my senses are awakened. I move from being an efficient and productive worker to a friend who can touch and see and engage with God. I grow to love the things and the people He loves — with my actions, with my time, and with my presence.

Lovers will always outwork workers. (135-6)

I don’t generally make claims like this, but this is a book that I think every Christian would benefit from reading. It’s a beautifully written look at the life that’s found in the hidden places, those secret places where we grow and grow deep. Unseen came to me at precisely the right time, and I am so grateful that it did.