On Seeing and Being Seen

Seeing another person and really taking in the essence of that person is probably the most beautiful gift you can give. And receiving the gift of being seen is an art form that takes a lot of courage - as I have learned. This is the story of my learning:

Recurrent and unexpected crying - I'm onto something

Crying didn’t used to be part of my vocabulary when I was in my twenties. So I was extremely surprised - and curious - by my out-of-character reaction, when at age 25, I watched Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride” take in the view of his young daughter as she was coming down the stairs as a bride. Despite having watched the movie with the snobbish detachment of “what a chick-flick!”, that moment made me burst into tears or rather into uncontrollable sobbing. Back then, with analytical curiosity and neutrality, I attributed that to the sadness of not going to have such a moment with my father. 

More than 10 years later, I was recently hit by the same kind of uncontrollable sobbing when I heard a father tell how moved he was by having danced a waltz with his teenage daughter and realising that this was the first time he was swirling her around not as a child, but as a young woman. Again, I attributed the unleashed emotions to the grief of not having had such moments with my father. 

One month later, same story: Another father telling me how he got up before sunrise to witness his 18-year-old son returning from a wilderness trip that marked his passage from youth to adulthood, and how his son looked for him as soon as he had been welcomed back into civilisation by the passage leaders. I felt tears welling up as the father continued to tell me how moved he was to witness that particular moment. 

The power of witnessing

When he mentioned the word "witness", the uncontrollable sobs waiting-to-happen were replaced by a huge revelation! That was it! Those were all stories of parents witnessing a major change in their children lives! My tears were not caused by past moments missed with my father, but rather by what I felt I was missing in my current relationship with my mother! That’s why I had been getting so mad when my mother would run around fussing, preparing and filling each moment that we spend together with things to do. 

My anger about the hyperactivity of my mother - paired with increasing and excruciating guilt for such un-filial feelings - had recently come to a point where I was imagining to not have her around should I ever give birth to a child. The notion of her creating havoc with things that needed to be done that very moment just made me want to ban her from the scene. At the same time, the idea of her not being there also made me sad. 

Hearing that father speak about the emotions he felt when he was witnessing this important moment in his son’s life, I finally realised what made me so mad and what I was actually longing for: I wanted my mother to stop and experience those moments with me. I did not want to ban her from life-changing events in my life, but neither did I want to feel the pain of having these moments being passed over with admonitions on what to wear, what to eat, what to worry about and how to prepare for the next moment, hours, days, weeks, years of my life. I just wanted her to stop, take in the experience, and witness the moment as it was unfolding. 

The power of witnessing is not a one-sided affair

I was elated by my insight and by having been able to put words around my frustration and instantly went into hatching a plan on how to improve the awkwardness that had crept into my relationship with my mother. I sought out that father to thank him for sharing his experience and I shared my insights with him. He was a great listener, and then something scary happened: I felt that he was witnessing my breakthrough moment in a similar way in which he may have witnessed his son. It was an intense feeling …. aaaaaand I shut it down immediately. With the flicker of my signature humour and laughter, I dispelled the moment. Here was the experience that I had just decided I wanted to ask for, and I wasn’t able to receive it!

This was humbling. I should not run around blaming my mother for not taking the time to really see me, when it was apparent that I had the habit of dispelling moments that might lead to being seen. I can actually look back into my past and the string of moments where I pushed away - often beautiful - acknowledgements by friends, teachers, random strangers stretches back to my earliest memories. Wow, I really suck at this!

I always thought of being vulnerable (as most famously made fashionable by Brené Brown) as something that requires action on your part - like sharing some deep thoughts. I had never thought of it as passively allowing myself to be “the object” of someone’s witnessing eyes. I have done the act of actively being vulnerable several times in the past - I have even been called brave in that regard. But passively leaving the door open to others igniting my vulnerability through their act of witnessing…… ugh, I don’t know about that! That feels totally out of control and way scarier! 


Martin Buber talks about the magic that is created in the relationship between “I” and “Thou”, when “I” comes into existence through the presence of a witnessing “Thou”. I caught a glimpse of the power of the “I-Thou” magic, and I want more!!!!! I don’t think I’ll get more by marching up to my mother and demanding she’d give it to me, though. Quoting from Maureen Murdock’s 'The Heroine’s Journey': “Buber says that Thou cannot be controlled or found by seeking; we meet Thou through grace, in mystery. Thou is an experience of the sacred.”

Tough realisation: I cannot force the magic of an “I-Thou” moment. All I can do is talk about it’s existence with my mother and other people I care about, and I can try to practice leaving the door open so that “Thou” can come in. Thankfully, I have a husband who has proven to be the “Thou” to my “I” in the past and present, and I want to hone my sensibility to catch, allow, and really cherish the moments when I’m presented with the gift of being seen, not just by my husband but also by other people. At the same time, I want to pass on the gift by being “Thou” to the “I” of the people around me. I guess, I should start with my mother.