In the early 80s, Rod Serling sold his rights to the Twilight Zone back to CBS, and they revived it with the intention of making an inexpensive buck off the show’s legacy. I was around five at the time. Only one episode of the revival has remained clear in my memory — To See the Invisible Man, based on a short story by Robert Silverberg first published in 1963. In it, a man named Carter Smith is sentenced by a dystopian government to a year of invisibility. He is strapped to a chair, and a scarring implant fused to his forehead. His jailers walk calmly out of the room and set him free. The implant burns through anything Carter tries to cover it with, and everyone around him on seeing it pretends he doesn’t exist, lest floating government drones notice and sentence them to Carter’s fate. For a year, he is cut completely adrift in society, ignored by everyone including a nurse after two bullies who pick on invisible people hit Carter with their car.
The year done, his two jailers enter his apartment silently, and remove the implant from his head, ending his social invisibility. We see him four months later a complete man again, working and with friends. A woman who had ignored him during his sentence walks up and begs him to talk to her. She has an implant of her own now. He sees the drones and turns to walk away but, hearing her weeping, comes back to her and pulls her to him.
“It’s okay,” he says, as the drones descend on them. “You are not invisible. I can see you.”
To see the invisible man, you must become one.
Nine years after that episode aired, I was riding the bus to school being relentlessly tormented by Trevor. Trevor had had it in for me now for months, seeing in me an easy target that wouldn’t fight back. He would sit behind me on the ride to school and smack me in the back of the head — take my glasses and feign throwing them out the window — flick my ear lobes as hard as he could. I had told several adults, but nothing changed. In fact, it’d gotten worse. One thing that parents don’t realize is that within the adolescent hierarchy, telling on your tormentor often brings worse ridicule if anyone finds out.
On this particular day, he was just patting me continually on my head and saying, “Good bitch. Good.” Over and over again. I waved his hand away and demanded he stop. He just laughed and continued. Rage and frustration had been building for the better part of a semester now, and finally, when he reached around my head to poke me in the eyes again, I spun on him, reared back, and smacked him open palm across his face. After a moment of mutual shock, Trevor recovered and lunged. I caught both his wrists and held him at bay. It didn’t matter. He could see my look of disbelief and fear that I’d struck him, and was emboldened by it.
When I stepped off the bus, Trevor had been hiding waiting for me. He lunged out, punched me in the stomach, and I grimaced and doubled over. When I looked up, he was standing over me leering, a delighted smug smile on his face. I would’ve breathed fire if my anger had let me breathe.
Trevor turned to walk away from me, but before he could, I slung my arm around his throat and threw him onto the concrete. He landed like a wet side of well-marbled beef, and I jumped on him and began wailing on his face with clenched fists — the big sweeping unguided blows of a young boy enraged. It didn’t take much to burn up the adrenaline, and when the rage had no fuel left I looked down at him and what I’d done. He was still, grinning at me, blood now pouring from his nose and split lip.
We were both, suspended.
“I am so, disappointed in you,” my Dad said that evening, shaking his head and struggling to look at me. He told me I had started on a path to becoming a violent human being. That if the school hadn’t done anything about Trevor, then I should have just let Trevor do what he wanted. Because violence is never the solution. And as I struggled angrily to understand, he stopped talking to me for four days.
For four days, while I followed him around my step mother’s home weeping, and begging him to explain, Dad pretended I didn’t exist. He would play the piano to drown me out. Or turn on the Cubs game as loud as he could. Or get in the car and drive away. This was how my Dad handled conflict at that time. And not long after that, we had our last falling out. He packed me on a plane to go and live with my mom. The last thing Dad said to me as I walked away was, “Have a nice life.” He wouldn’t see me again for four years.
Now, I’m not bringing up this story as a tale of woe and tragedy or to barter for sympathies. I love my Dad, and we are very close today. When I was in college, I went back to Illinois for the first time. Dad told me it was good to see me, but he wasn’t sorry for how things happened and because of that, he would understand if I didn’t want to stay. I thought about it for a night and said, no. I wanted to stay, provided he accepted I too wouldn’t have done anything differently. He agreed, and that was it. I don’t understand some of the things that happened when we were younger, but thanks to the view from atop the accumulating pile of my own lifetime’s mistakes, I have learned to let go. Forgiving and letting go is half the battle to surviving a complicated family. And as Norman McClane wrote in A River Runs Through It, we can love completely even without complete understanding.
No, I’m sharing this because I’ve finally figured out what this story means to me today.
At the age I was when we were at odds, my Dad was my only friend. I still hadn’t made any in Illinois. My step-mom and I were adversarial. One of my step sisters hated me. The other had a life of her own. I was the type of kid who got along best with his teachers but found kids his own age intimidating and impenetrable. And whenever Dad would shut down it was devastatingly, terrifyingly, panic-inducingly, lonely for me. Unknowingly, I began to train my mind to work in a very particular way.
First, I would assume I was always wrong. Until we reach the age where we humanize our parents, they are our Gods. And how could I possibly know more than He did? I MUST be wrong.
Second, having assumed that I was always at fault, but not understanding why, my mind began imagining all the ways I could be wrong.
And finally, I would then come up with the way to make amends for the wrong I’d just invented in my own head.
This is how my anxiety works, and it has followed me my entire life — infecting my relationships with women, friends, and family. A frustrating, panicky cycle of fearing imagined rejection and doing whatever was necessary to avoid it.
Solutions like positive thinking and mantras and all that never really make a dent. When my anxiety lays an egg, say: ‘You’re going to die alone,’ to resist it by trying to tell myself, ‘I’m a pretty neat guy. Someone will come along,” isn’t actually addressing the problem. In fact fighting the fear head on like that empowers its veracity. The issue is not the fear itself. The issue is the wiring that generated it — the flaw in the lens of perspective I look through to see the world.
I have only ever found two ways to combat the problem, a long term, and a short term. Long term, the more I’ve come to understand the way my mind works, the more freedom I’ve found to make empowering decisions that might’ve once seemed impossible to me. Understanding the way of surviving I created during those conflicts with my Dad has given me the power to not be run by it.
A few years ago, I went on my first date in a very long time. I was absolutely terrified. Twitching. Creating a list in my head of conversation starters and then abandoning them and starting over. The evening of, I road to the restaurant and nearly crashed my scooter twice. When I pulled up, she was already waiting inside, and I glanced in through the window of the restaurant and spotted her in the corner tapping out a message on her phone. An unexpected thought washed away the brain fog I’d been shrouded in all day. What if she is nervous? Who would I need to be in this moment to put this woman at ease? To make her feel listened to and seen? I walked into the restaurant and, for the evening, left all the self-obsessed anxiety on the corner.
The more I’ve spoken about Buffy and existentialism the more I find myself involuntarily using it as a compass for guiding my daily life. As the philosophy goes, meaning in life is derived from making ethical choices and the ensuing action you take after. If you allow yourself to be lead by impulse, whim, or fear alone, then you make yourself an automaton and deny your own authentic self. But for some reason, it wasn’t until recently that I realized just how very much this applies to relationships as well.
In the last 20 years, I have spent so much time avoiding rejection, the relationship equivalent of ‘fear of failure.’ Doing whatever was necessary to keep the two of us together, or not saying how I really felt about her, or acting fearfully manipulative. When all of your decisions are being made automatically by fear, you’re not actually living your life as YOU. That is the very definition of inauthentic. At my lowest, I had given up much of my own identity because I believed it was what was necessary to keep us together. And that staying together was the absolute good. It wasn’t. And then she left. Rightfully so.
My desire to be a better man now has me leaning into my own fears and accepting that love of anything or anyone involves risk. Rejection is an inevitable aspect of living. It hurts because it’s supposed to. Growth as a human being doesn’t occur in bed but at the boundaries of our normal.
To live freely and with authenticity as adults, it behooves us from time to time to open the bags we’re carrying and unpack some of the garbage we shoved in there before we knew better. We all carry mementos to remind us of who we are but never forget that you can choose to leave some of them behind.