Living to Be Seen: Why We All Need Someone to Look at Us

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There are many ways we categorize people, and categories change with cultural trends.  When I was a kid, I remember “right brain/left brain” as the big distinction.  You were either the creative, artsy type or you were the linear, mathematical type.  I always worried that I was abnormal since I was clearly neither a Bohemian nor a scientist.  When I was in college, I learned about Gardner’s multiple intelligences and happily placed myself in the “linguistic intelligence” category because I was good at Boggle.  More recently, my Facebook feed has been all about the introvert/extrovert distinction.  All you need to know to correctly interpret people’s needs, choices, and motivations is to know whether they’d prefer to read a book or go to a party!

It’s funny how some people tout each new categorization as the key to unlocking all the secrets of human nature, and then some other people come along and point out (correctly) the flaws and limitations of those categories (and let’s face it, all categories are of limited usefulness when it comes to assessing something as complex as humankind), and then we move on to the next Definitive Classification.

Recently reading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, I came across a set of categories that I’d never seen before, but that made a lot of sense in interpreting human behavior.  It was one of the most thought-provoking sections of the book, and I think that the Internet age has added another layer of complexity to Kundera’s divisions.

Here is what he says:

“We all need someone to look at us. We can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under.

The first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public.

The second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. They are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. They are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. This happens to nearly all of them sooner or later.  People in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need.

Then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. Their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. One day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark.

And finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. They are the dreamers.”

Kundera’s opening statement was a sucker punch to the gut.  “We all need someone to look at us.”  Isn’t that just the absolute truth about nearly every human being who’s ever walked the planet?  All we really want is to be seen, isn’t it?  And not just seen–approved of, admired, and especially, loved.  It’s as true for my students who act out in class as it is for the ones who work tirelessly for straight As.  Even the strange hermits who live in the woods for years without talking to another human are constantly thinking about their strict fathers or disappointed mothers.  We can’t escape other human eyes.

We’re all asking the same question: do you see me?

The first category–people who need to be seen by lots of unknown eyes–belongs to the celebrities, the people who try out for reality shows, the people we frequently label as narcissists.  The age of YouTube and Vine has made it easy to amass an audience of adoring strangers.  But just when I start to feel qualified to cast the first smirk at this “shallow” group, I realize that I feel the best about my blog posts when strangers comment on them.  Why would this be so, unless I had some need to be seen by unknown eyes?  I think the appeal is being noticed and discussed by people who aren’t under apparent obligation to like what we produce.  It’s an exceptional kind of favor.

The second category–the cocktail party host–is the classic extrovert.  Again, it’s easy to label this person an egotist until we realize how many of our actions are dedicated to generating an audience and a response.  Facebook and Instagram are the new Kingdoms of the Life Lived Before Known Eyes.  No longer do you need to host an elaborate party to get an audience; you have a substantial audience waiting for you on your Smartphone!  And the definition of people we “know” is growing; today, it includes that kid who annoyed you in fourth grade or the girl you sat with in Psych 101.  We “friend” everyone, and we live our everyday lives before them in increasingly personal ways.

The third category, living before the eyes of those we love, is perhaps who we would all like to be.  But Kundera rightly calls this a “dangerous” category, because sooner or later, the eyes of those we love will close forever.  There’s also the fact that people we love let us down.  They irritate us, disappoint us, and sometimes even betray us.  If we put all our existential eggs in the basket of unflinching approval from those we love, we’re placing far too heavy a burden on them.   It’s a fragile, potentially volatile position.

The fourth category, the dreamers (those who lives before unseen eyes), often produces the most impressive results, like spectacular works of visual art, sweeping symphonies, and gut-wrenching novels.  There’s often tragedy in the artist’s life, and it’s sometimes because he or she is striving for the unattainable.  The problem with living before unseen eyes is that you never know whether or not you’ve done enough to win the approval of your audience.  So you reach farther than most people reach.  You push the boundaries of human capability.  And you ask your unseen gazer, “How about now?  Have I done enough now?”  Because they can never retweet or click the “like” button or even say “good job,” you are compelled to do even more.

Something I’ve discovered about the Christian life is that it’s not a steady climb toward perfection.  Instead, faith ebbs and flows depending on what God is doing in my circumstances and in my heart.  But I find that the more I cling wholeheartedly to the gospel, the more I live fully before the face of the One who created me, who redeemed me, and who always sees me, the less I feel the need to be seen by other people.

Living to be seen by God doesn’t mean living in that fourth category of people who always wonder whether or not they’ve won the approval of the distant object of their affections.  It means that there’s a fifth category: those who live before the eyes of One who could not love them more or less than He already does.  That’s the category that I want to define my life.


5 thoughts on “Living to Be Seen: Why We All Need Someone to Look at Us

    • Why thank you, stranger! 🙂 Yes, I was struck with the fact that blogging is really the only space where I live before unknown eyes. And it’s a rush to get a new follower or commenter who isn’t my aunt or my college roommate. Why is that? I think we like to have our work validated by people who are judging it solely on the basis of its own merit. The pull of the anonymous audience seems to be getting stronger and stronger, even for the average person, thanks to social media. Much better, if possible, to live for the Audience of One.

  1. “the more I live fully before the face of the One who created me, who redeemed me, and who always sees me, the less I feel the need to be seen by other people.” YES!!!!

    This post is along the SAME vein of some things I’ve been praying through in my life. I really appreciate your thoughts on this and sharing the insights you’ve been reading!!!

    • Thanks, Amy! Your comments are always so kind and encouraging for me to read! This issue been on my heart a lot lately too, especially as I feel my heart inclined toward grad studies, publication, conferences etc., and I worry that I’m just living to be seen by as many people as possible. I’m a huge people pleaser–easily cut down or quickly built up by people’s approval or disapproval. I really, truly just want to live for God.

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