Notes On Notes On Invisibility
The French social scientist, Roger Caillois once wrote that civilizations have existed without ploughs, wheels or leavers, but never without masks. 
Akiko Busch’s memoir, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, weaves together images, metaphors and analogies, which leave the reader convinced of the need to seek invisibility in an increasingly transparent and persona driven culture. Busch writes, “In both behavioral neurology and cognitive neuroscience […] we have come to the point of viewing ‘self’ and the sense of self as a grab bag of process, brain modules and ad hoc evolutionary solutions. While we can talk about our self in the singular, that singularity is an illusion.”  Hyper-transparency requires a certain curation of identity for the other, and does not always originate from true self. What is produced is what Jung called the persona.
From an in-depth look at the psychology surrounding imaginary friends to the complexities of dementia and the vanishing self, Busch makes a case for the universal human draw, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the hidden and invisible world. In a modern world dictated by an economy of information, access and extraverted transparency, such invisibility is nearly impossible. However, the pursuit of such invisibility cannot be the way of transformative leadership, as comically displayed by Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in the NBC show Parks & Rec. Busch notes that it’s not about refusing to live in our highly visible world, but about finding a creative third option.
The human soul demands invisibility, just as the light of Summer longs for the darkness of Winter. It is as though invisibility is the default setting, and if we listen to our interior lives will be drawn at least in part to practices and rhythms that promote solitude, silence and renewal. Collectively, human beings have never had such access to transparency as we do in our digital age. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic shut off access to travel, ease-of-entry into stores or entertainment venues. Churches, movie theaters, and entire countries became inaccessible. The symbol of the mask, outside of its highly charged political meanings, is a reminder of the half-hidden world in which we now exist. In Oregon, where mask mandates are still in effect, the choice of not wearing a mask may be a defiant act to conceal the individual in a political “statement”. Personally, I realize how much my face is seen by so many people, and how I would prefer to be seen by fewer people. As my face is displayed prominently on most Portland Seminary webpages, I realize my mask provides sanctuary for that which is most true and invisible within me.
Finally, I’m deeply intrigued by the concept of invisible leadership. Invisible leadership lives from the backstage into the front stage, and then returns again. A key distinctive of invisible leadership is empowerment rather than displays of power; essentially, embracing, utilizing and endowing. One of my Design prototypes is around “no-leader” small groups. Essentially, groups are initiated by a facilitator that endows the group of six to eight individuals with language, tools, practices and rhythms for inner work in the context of community. These groups do not need a group leader, because the groups are ultimately led by the lives of the participants. I love planting these groups because it grants agency to individuals to take healthy ownership of their healing while also challenging them to rely on others in the group. Invisible leadership is not the ultimate form, nor should it be. We need highly visible leaders, however, I’m curious what may come of a more balanced approach within the Church and various discipleship and formation processes.
 Roth, “‘How to Disappear’ Book Review | The Washington Post,” accessed November 17, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-delight-of-being-inconspicuous-in-a-world-thats-always-watching-us/2019/02/21/a68e2b86-1e6a-11e9-8e21-59a09ff1e2a1_story.html/.
 Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (New York: Penguin Press, 2019), 154.
5 responses to “Notes On Notes On Invisibility”
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Michael, “invisible leadership” is a fascinating concept! It will be interesting to see if “no-leader” small groups becomes your project. It sounds like you are already practicing that. I would like to see anything you have in writing for the participants to know how that works and what their role is. How would differentiate between when visible leadership is needed and when it is not?
I think invisible leadership ties in with two of my three “big ideas”. I have a small group curriculum I developed and implemented in four separate small groups in 2018-2019. I do have things in writing, and I’d love to share more when we chat on Monday!
Michael: “I’m curious what may come of a more balanced approach within the Church and various discipleship and formation processes” has me thinking about the Great Commission and the root words used. As many translations often interpret it as “go and make disciples,” the Greek root really translates to “as you are going…” — perhaps this small distinction would help more in the church lead from where they are, as they go.
Michael, really interesting thought: “The human soul demands invisibility, just as the light of Summer longs for the darkness of Winter.” That would be a fun discussion to have. On one hand I want to say, no way, only in that it seems so “self-centered.” Yet, I also am not sure we can give our best self to God (or others) if we don’t fully know and understand ourselves, and thus live visible lives. I think of Os Guinness and the audience of One. Perhaps the question is, for whom do we seek to be visible?
Great post. So much more to chew on that you wrote about. Well done.
Michael, thank you, as always, for a thought-provoking post. I really appreciate your thoughts on the invisible leader and its distinct footprint being “empowerment rather than displays of power; essentially, embracing, utilizing and endowing.” This is strong pushback on the more usual description of a ‘good leader’ that is very visible and directs what is happening in an organization, even if that leader uses the language of empowerment. In your current context, where are you faced most with decisions between displaying power or authority versus empower others? How do you manage those decisions?