How to Disappear
a book review
I struggled with the negative effects of social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, long before I finally quit them last year for Lent. Going cold turkey showed me how anxiety-inducing and addictive these platforms were for me. While I’ve deleted my Instagram, I’ve hesitantly returned to Facebook. I’m still trying to find solutions for how to manage the expectations of a public, digital platform with my need for privacy, which is why I was immediately intrigued by Akiko Busch’s essay collection How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. It’s a meditation on the value of remaining unseen in a world that demands we curate our identities by “self-promotion, personal branding, and ability to create and cultivate assorted profiles—consumer, social, political, professional—on social media that are viewed as valued, indeed essential, commodities.” Escaping notice is “about maintaining identity, propriety, autonomy, and voice,” she argues, which are all necessary for any creative, especially writers. Don’t be mislead by the title, though. This isn’t a manifesto for deleting social media accounts, or a guide for how to go invisible on the internet. Rather, Busch offers her readers an alternative philosophy in which remaining unseen, overlooked, and undetected has delightful benefits. She leaves it up to her reader how they will apply this wisdom to their messy, publicly online lives, believing we’ll be swayed by the benefits she enumerates: Invisibility helps us understand ourselves and our relationships more deeply and access profound spiritual experiences.
In the opening essay, “The Invisible Friend,” she focuses on the “childhood narratives that speak constantly to the power that children imagine comes with going unseen as they learn to become citizens of the larger world.” Think hide-and-seek, invisibility rings, secret gardens, and imaginary friends. The power of invisibility is illuminating, protective, advantageous, and serves as a route of knowledge,” she explains. This also pertains to adults too. Like a child who retreats to the blanket fort, grownups benefit from hiding out in spaces where we can take measure of our minds in private reflection. I found her connection between imaginary friends and interpersonal relationships fascinating. Busch explains there is real value in having a conversation in our head with our partner, or imagining a fictional character exists because it can help us hone our social skills and “comprehend and negotiate some unanticipated turn of events.” This resonated deeply with me, as one of the spiritual journaling practices I teach involves writing out imaginary dialogue with others.
Busch’s range of subjects is impressive. Several essays discuss lessons from nature’s camouflaged creatures. She touches on invisibility in literature from multiple angles, including how Virginia Woof’s protagonist, Mrs. Dalloway, can observe without been seen which gives her incredible agency. She discusses works of erasure literature, including Johnathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. There’s mention of how Alcoholic Anonymous’s structure subverts hierarchical power, and there are forays into how Pokémon Go and visual augmented reality experiences change our sense of identity and visibility as well.
Busch’s finest moments are when she connects invisibility to spirituality. How to Disappear, ends appropriately, “With Wonder.” Busch describes a study in which participants were stationed in a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees over two hundred feet tall and asked to gaze at the trees. A second group of people were asked to gaze at skyscrapers. “Not surprisingly,” Busch writes, “those looking at the trees reported greater awe than those gazing up at the tall buildings. The feelings of self-diminishment that came from being in a natural setting eliciting awe and wonder also resulted in more generous and prosocial behavior…. Even brief experience of awe…lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another.” She writes of her own experience of wonder while open-water swimming when a loon calls out, an experience she names “sacred erasure,” when “one’s mental and emotional certainties vanish.”
I appreciated how well the book’s cover design—dark trees emerging from a misty fog—echoed Busch’s key theme:
“The acceptance that each of us is a bead of mist in the weather of the world is what connects us most…the smaller we become, the less we are, the greater our sense of connection and our sense of humanity. It is almost as though finding our place is a matter of losing it first. Perhaps the ability to navigate our way through these twinned circumstances of exposure and erasure is what is required of us.”
There’s a secularized spirituality present here—whether intentional or not—that echoes Jesus’s core message that the last shall be first. She ends with a quote by Irish poet/priest, John O’Donohue, which is so good, I’m sharing it in its entirety:
“The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more it seems to me actually is that the visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world. And the same way I believe with the body and the soul. That actually the soul—the body is in the soul, not the soul just in the body. And that in some way the poignance of being a human being is that you are the place where the invisible becomes visible and expressive in some way.”
In the end, Busch encourages us to embrace the liminality of being a human with both an invisible soul and a visible body. It’s a beautiful, complex dance, now isn’t it?
*Have you found practical ways to “disappear”?
*What are benefits you’ve experienced by being unnoticed?
Please share your insights to these questions by leaving a comment.
I have exciting news to share: You can now read Spirit in the new Substack app for iPhone.
With the app, you’ll have a dedicated Inbox for my Substack and any others you subscribe to. New posts will never get lost in your email filters, or stuck in spam. Longer posts will never cut-off by your email app. Comments and rich media will all work seamlessly. Overall, it’s a big upgrade to the reading experience.
The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.
After dabbling in posting my first face-to-camera Reel in Instagram I had the disconcerting experience of lots of people who don’t follow me “liking” it, and I wonder where these people came from. It made me feel too seen, so stumbling on this previous post while going through my Substack app was appropos. That essay collection sounds intriguing. I will add it to my (ever-growing) StoryGraph TBR list.
Thank you for this, Sarah. I'm reminded of the practice of Active Imagination, which I practiced, with limited success, in Jungian analysis, a conversing on paper with a figure in my dream. This practice can help identify parts of myself that are announcing themselves in my dream.
As for social media, Facebook and Twitter, they are way to public for my comfort.
I really enjoy your musings. Thank you!