I want to leave a lasting impression on the world. I’m going to die doing it.”
These are the words of a thirteen-year-old boy, just days before he took a semi-automatic rifle to his school—intending to shoot and kill as many students and teachers as possible. He rode the bus to school with the rifle under his clothes and extra ammunition in his backpack. He hid in a restroom until just before classes. At that time, he entered the hallway but for reasons unknown abruptly returned to the restroom. And then he took his own life by shooting himself instead.
This was February 20, 2018, at a middle school in Ohio—one week after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. Maybe you missed this story. I did. In fact, I wonder if unnoticed lives might be the epidemic of our time. In their search for common threads that tie together those who commit acts of mass violence, psychologists have discovered that many of them crave social connection but instead feel anonymous and insignificant. That is, they feel invisible.
While school shooters are as extreme as they are relatively uncommon, I am convinced that there are countless others living among us every day feeling the same way.
And human beings are not designed to be invisible.
Our lives have always been made to be noticed. One of the first biblical descriptions of humanity is that we are made in God’s image. This image cannot educate, inspire, encourage, or convict unless it is first noticed. God has always intended the visibility of people’s lives to reflect his likeness. And the picture we get of Adam and Eve in the garden is one of open communion with God. They were completely unhidden from each other and from him.
It’s only after the fall that people suffer the consequences of being or feeling unseen. Sin causes Adam and Eve to hide, evidence of a distorted desire toward an anonymity they were not designed for. But God’s very first act is to call out to them, a reminder that he continues to wish for them to be seen.
Throughout the biblical narrative, we learn about God who knows his people and wants to be known by them. He knows names and counts hairs. He chases those who run and whispers to those who hide. He raises the lowly, calls the insignificant, and emphasizes the marginalized. He refuses to let people be invisible.
And in an ultimate act of love, he takes on humanity himself. In the incarnation, God chooses to enter the world in human flesh. The invisible becomes plainly visible. And even after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God reminds us that no creature is ever hidden from his sight. People may continue in this life to struggle with insignificance and anonymity, but in the end we will see him face to face and we will know him fully as we are fully known. Invisibility will be someday be eliminated for good.
So this is God’s heart and inclination. He designed us to be known, to be significant. When people meant to be known become unknown, when people designed to be visible become invisible, they suffer a cruel reversal of God’s work—sometimes with catastrophic results.
If we are truly conforming to his image and following his example, then we will not allow other human beings to live invisible lives, either. No one in our spheres of influence should ever feel anonymous or insignificant. Since every human being carries the image of God with them, to allow a person to feel invisible is to treat the image of God in them as invisible.
For some of us, this may mean an overhaul of our lives. Perhaps we need to pursue counseling to battle self-centered and narcissistic tendencies. Or perhaps we need to radically restructure our schedules to allow more personal connection and influence with others. But for most of us, this probably means being more mindful and making some minor adjustments. There are simple things we can all do to make people feel less invisible.
Speak a person’s name. Look a person in the eyes. Make physical contact. Ask a question. Offer a compliment. Invite a person into your space. Put your phone away. Slow down. Listen well. Remember.
And let the Holy Spirit in you recognize the image of himself in others.
Chances are we all know people who are struggling under the heavy burden of obscurity. Somewhere there is a person hiding in the darkness of shame. Somewhere there is a person feeling alone in the haze of grief. Somewhere there is a person rejected and abandoned and ostracized. Somewhere there is a person craving social connection but feeling invisible.
I’m not suggesting that we can eliminate mass shootings simply with random acts of kindness, of course. But we should never underestimate the power of making people feel seen.
Cover image by Joe Leahy.
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