Seen

Of all the many ways in which the past nine months have seemed the stuff of dystopic fiction, the whole population wearing masks when they get together is the strangest. Last February, before the pandemic began, I hosted a going-away party for a colleague leaving for a new job. One guest had a cold and chose to wear an N-95 mask to keep others safe, and my first thought was, “Why did he even come?” I’ve now moved to the opposite extreme. Even a third-hand story about a person refusing to wear a mask in an enclosed and crowded space fills me with anxiety and anger.

As Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, the seminary I serve as dean, closes out its first full semester of socially distanced, mask-mandated theological education, I am beginning to move from recognizing what we lost to capturing and consolidating what we’ve learned. What we lost: accidental encounters that lead to magical conversations, hugs, and the thrilling intensity that comes when people bring their energies together. What we learned (among many, many other things): how badly people need to feel seen.

The expression “feeling seen” has gone from never-heard to overused quickly over the past couple of years. The expression “I feel seen” combines an appreciation for feeling acknowledged with gratitude for not being stereotyped. In conversation, we’re all acutely aware of the difference between sensing someone is listening to us, and getting the impression that they only hear what they expect we’d say. We’re all unique and want to be treated as such.

I used to think that feeling seen had little to do with actual seeing. If you’d asked me for examples of when I didn’t feel seen before the pandemic, I probably would have mentioned times when someone called me by the wrong name or “explained” to me something I know very well: “Susan, let me help you understand…” Neither example has anything to do with eyesight.

I say I used to think because masks have changed my mind about the role of seeing in… seeing. Masks represent a significant — though necessary — obstacle to my ability to connect with people, causing me to believe that visual cues were playing a bigger role in my recognizing the humanity of others than I realized. This fall, I taught a course in-person where students and I wore masks at all times. Just like any experience of sensory deprivation, my inability to see their faces intensified the other ways in which I took them in. I was delighted by being around human students, but the loss of facial recognition changed the dynamic. They didn’t laugh at my jokes as hard (or maybe my jokes weren’t funny?), and sometimes I couldn’t tell if I’d hurt a student’s feelings in discussion when meaning to challenge them helpfully.

I used to worry that a desire to feel seen might present obstacles to what our school tries to do in teaching students to build community. We want our students to embrace their uniqueness, but ministry isn’t all about them. They have to find their voices but also learn to be part of something greater than themselves. Now, I’m glad many younger adults have an appreciation for feeling seen, because we need them to help us find new tools to cause people to feel seen amidst a disturbing pandemic that’s not going away anytime soon.

We’ve tried some new programs this year at Andover Newton specifically designed to help individuals to feel like they are more to us than part of the group. We created a position for a student worker whose job is to track and acknowledge birthdays. Each new student has a trustee praying for them: not only the school as a whole as trustees always have, but them as particular individuals.

The pandemic is touching everything we do; it’s in our faces all the time the way masks are on our faces. Our commitment going into this semester was that we were going to embrace transformation, seeking out every opportunity to know more about what God is up to in creation. I’ve come to sense deeply that God wants us to grow closer together, but not as a big, amorphous blob devoid of individuality within community. Masks remind us that we have to work to really see each other, and use more than just our eyes to do it.

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Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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