There's a reason children (and adults alike) anticipate Halloween. Outside the bounty of sugar they will soon possess, it's an evening dedicated to being someone or something you're not. For a magical evening, you get to transform into whatever your heart desires and have it be accepted and sometimes even praised.
If we take a closer look, there's something powerful in what the external can provide. Superheroes have their capes which can instantly transform an average news reporter into the Man of Steel. For us mere mortals, we have power suits, haircuts and access to blogs and online tutorials demonstrating how to dress for success. I find nothing wrong with physically transforming ourselves or wanting to look our best. The problem lies when a dependence is formed on physical measures to give us a sense of who we are.
The podcast, Invisibilia, is one of my new favorites. In the episode "The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes" the creators explore what clothes provide for their guests.
One such guest, Cass, is "convinced the right article of clothing could transform him". As an adolescent, after daily encounters with bullies, he set out to find a way to make the bullying cease through what he wore. After multiple clothing experiments, he landed on a pair of sunglasses and to his delight, the bullying ended.
Cass found that these sunglasses provided him with protection. He was transformed into someone different, someone who was no longer made fun of, someone who was not the source of abuse and life was better for it. In fact, they worked so well that Cass has literally taken this defensive measure into adulthood. To this day, he still wears his sunglasses, day and night, indoors and out, with his closest friends and strangers alike.
He genuinely believes they hold a "magical power" and have the "ability to protect bullied kids". He explains that "shielding the eyes can provide cover to people who need it...special advantages for those who choose not to wear a mask over their face". But at what cost comes this cover?
Those who know him describe him as "Look[ing] at the world through a telescope". He stands at a distance with a physical and emotional barrier. This "shielding of the eyes" prevents him from intimate knowledge of people closest to him. Cass does not even know the color of his ex-wife's eyes. This measure of protection, his defense of choice, changes how he sees the world. It keeps him locked in a world of being the bullied adolescent that is unsure if he is safe or not without his sunglasses.
The interviewer asked him to take his sunglasses off and reported that he looked "naked" and "vulnerable". To her, he changed and seemed different. He explained that he feels flustered without his glasses ("My shield is down"). These glasses have been given power to embolden him to engage the world.
These physical barriers of protection, what I call defenses, mirrors what happens on an emotional level. It isn't the sunglasses themselves that actually kept bullies at bay but rather what it gave Cass, a sense of power. It's the same with security objects children have. The objects offer security to the degree the child allows it.
I'm not disparaging that Cass needed to find a way to protect himself. I'm glad he found a way to survive the cruelty of others. He resourced himself with what was available at the time. But he's an adult now and what was once used to help him is now harming him. He is unable to engage others without them. Because his shield is always up, he misses out on deeper, more intimate relationships and in turn others miss out on truly experiencing him.
We are all walking around with our own version of sunglasses, our own shield. And like Cass, we needed them at the time but what was once helpful is now harmful. The cost of a shield is an honesty that is missing, a prevention of intimacy. Do we want to live life with little access to people and ourselves?
What might it mean to let others see you? What might it mean for you to see yourself?
We'll explore the answers to some of these questions later this week.