Invisibility and Harry Potter

In chapel on Sept. 14, Reverend Holland gave the following address to students about the notion of invisibility.  Headmaster Lamont has asked that the address be posted here, with Rev. Holland's permission.
A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says to the receptionist: “I need help. I can’t shake the feeling that I am invisible.”
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist says, “but the doctor can’t see you right now.”

Do you ever have the feeling that you’re invisible? I think it’s a pretty common experience. It is easy to get lost in the crowd… to feel that nobody sees us. Sometimes it is what we want – to be anonymous and unnoticed – but other times it feels lonely and awkward.

We see the notion of invisibility throughout literature. The Invisible Man is a novel by H.G. Wells in which a man devises a way, scientifically, to make himself invisible. Things don’t turn out so well. The invisible man freaks out the local population and is beaten to death by an angry mob. A fun little tale…

Harry Potter fans will think immediately of Harry’s invisibility cloak, which allows Harry to sneak into the library at night. I find it easier to believe in the existence of an invisibility cloak, than that a high school student would sneak into a library at night, to study – but those books were never meant to be realistic.

Lord of the Ringsaficionados will think of the ring of invisibility that makes Bilbo (and Frodo, after him) a great hero, but which threatens to steal his soul. There are at least 15 superheroes who have the power of invisibility, including Invisible Woman, Dr. Strange, and Iron Man.

Invisibility is a metaphor for many things. It represents the experience of being left out, of not being valued. It can also be a metaphor for our desire, at times, to disappear.

I heard a radio program earlier this week on the changes being wrought in society by social media. A group of high school students underwent a social mediafast” for one week, and then reported on the experience. The most common comment was that turning off one’s smart phone made one immediately invisible, as if one had ceased to exist.

When the woman who was conducting the experiment talked to the students about other ways to connect (going up and knocking on the door of a friend, for instance), she reported that they looked at her like she was crazy.

We live at a time when it is easier than ever to be invisible: to live life, participate, communicate, and express ourselves without ever having to reveal who we are. But, of course, this is a mixed bag. As Bilbo Baggins says, “Invisibility has its drawbacks...”

But invisibility, or anonymity, can be attractive, in that it allows us to stay safe. Blending into the woodwork can feel like a secure place to be, and we all kind of cooperate­ – or collude – in this.

If someone wants to be invisible, it’s easy enough. They can simply refrain from saying anything or doing anything to call attention to themselves, and the rest of us are usually happy to pretend like that person doesn’t exist. It isn’t that people can disappear, like a ninja in the night. Invisibility happens when we agree not to see someone.

We have heard from a few people in chapel already this year that part of Shawnigan culture is that we value each person, through our practice of noticing and acknowledging each other as we pass one another in the hallways and on the paths of campus. And this is more than just a courtesy: it is a way of recognizing that each of us has worth, that each of us is important.

The other side of this is that we all have different personalities, different comfort zones, when it comes to being visible or invisible. Some of you are very vocal in class, for instance. Others of you spend much of your classes praying that you won’t be noticed and called on to say anything.

It is incumbent on all of us to respect the choices that each of us makes about these things.

Last year, as some of you will remember, a grade 12 student – Lauren – spoke in this chapel about her life at Shawnigan as an introvert. She spoke powerfully. Her words reverberated through the school and caused the teaching staff to rethink the degree to which effort grades are attached to verbal class participation.

Lauren’s point was that everyone is different, we all make ourselves visible in different ways, and sometimes silence is not an attempt to make oneself invisible, it is just silence.

I think it is worthwhile to continue to consider our prejudices toward the quiet, reflective people in our midst, to redefine what we think of as participation, and to slow down and take the time to notice those around us – not just the most visible, but everyone.

Someone once said: “Don’t confuse visibility with credibility.”

All of us want and need to be acknowledged. Each of us wants to make our contributions to the community.
Paying attention to one another – even those who don’t call attention to themselves – is the best way we can cultivate a school in which everyone feels a part. This may require rethinking some of our values and preferences, but it is a rethinking that will make us all better people in the end.

It will help us develop the ability to truly see, to develop vision.

And, as Jonathan Swift wrote: “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”

Rev. Holland
Shawnigan Lake School
September 14, 2019
Shawnigan Lake School is an independent boarding school for Grades 8-12 on Canada's West Coast. Our modern, diverse and innovative programming helps shape the next generation of global leaders.