Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen? That’s kind of an ironic question since the award-winning show—and now movie—is about the human desire to be seen. The show centers around the suicide of a student who felt invisible. One of the ultimate lessons of the movie is that everyone—no matter how popular or nerdy—often feels the same way…as if they aren’t noticed.
To be clear, if you feel the need to be noticed and/or feel like you don’t get the attention you desire, you are extremely normal. This isn’t a question of high school cliques…jocks or nerds…rich or poor…race, religion or ethnicity. It is ageless and timeless, which means that while feeling a lack of attention may not feel good, anyone who feels it is not alone. It is a universal need and a universal void.
In the show, the lead character learns that “virtually everyone” in the school, no matter what their “clique,” is being treated for anxiety or depression. But if part of the anxiety and depression is feeling alone and everyone has the same feelings and fears, then aren’t they all together in that plight?
It’s about perspective. We all have our insecurities and feelings of being an outsider.
I remember being embarrassed by my looks in college. I never felt pretty. I wasn’t very good at putting my wardrobe together or doing my hair and makeup. I was a sporty girl…not a girly-girl. Meanwhile, one of my dearest friends was a former dancer. She was tiny and so graceful, and she always looked perfect—hair, clothes, even room decor. When we would go out, she was inevitably at the center of the crowd and so comfortable talking to everyone. Yes, I was secretly jealous. Not in a mean jealous way— just in a, Wow I’m not like that way. Everyone noticed “Stephanie,” and they would talk to me when I was with her, but they sure weren’t circling me. Stephanie and I are still very close, and over the course of 40 years, I’ve learned that to appreciate and understand the uniqueness that defines every individual, and that, just like in Dear Evan Hansen, that pretty popular girl has her own fears and insecurities. How normal!
In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed what he called The Hierarchy of Needs, which comprises five core elements underlying human motivation. Individuals move up the pyramid as they satisfy the lower needs—as each need is satisfied, they move on to the next higher one. At the base are physiological needs such as food and shelter, followed by safety, love/belonging, esteem and, finally, self-actualization, where you get to follow your dreams.
Based on Maslow’s hierarchy, it is not surprising that individuals get “stuck” at the level of love/belonging. The breakdown of the family unit and individuals’ inherent survival instincts create an often dangerous competitive—even mean— environment, especially for children in school. Parents often are absent. One parent may be physically not in the home…or one or both parents may spend excessive amounts of time at work. Or perhaps the parents are physically present but emotionally absent, focusing instead on social media or an infinite number of personal distractions. The pandemic has only made the disconnect worse for children and individuals of all ages. Without a secure base of love and belonging, young people can’t progress to develop confidence and esteem—they’re floating without support. There are those rare self-reliant individuals who source their own strength, but for the vast majority of humans who rely on social interaction and recognition for survival, the result is invisibility.
Lately, I’ve been watching the growth from physiological needs…to safety…to love and belonging in real time. My daughter and her husband recently adopted an eight-week-old puppy. As I recall, in “the old days,” puppies would be adopted when they reached 12 to 15 weeks. My husband and I got one dog at 14 weeks and another at 17. At the time, the theory was that slightly older dogs were already partially vaccinated and were more in control of their body for ease of training. Now, adoptions happen at eight weeks to optimize the connection between the puppy and the family in a process called imprinting.
Like a newborn child, an eight-week-old puppy is very needy. Adorable…but needy. In spite of my daughter and her husband’s lack of sleep this last month, the dog is soooooo connected to her parents. She listens well and just wants to be near them all day long, crying when she’s put into her playpen and preferring to lay under their desks while they’re working from home. My daughter sent a very heart-wrenching picture (see above) of the dog laying by her running sneakers after she left the apartment for a weekend trip with friends. (The dog had never laid there before.) There is no question that this dog feels safe, loved and belonging. She’s extremely visible. Oddly, the next challenge will be weaning her from complete dependency to help her develop esteem and confidence so that she can be alone for a while.
It’s a beautiful demonstration of the power of attention.
But what can all the dear Evan Hansens do? The huge bulky of humanity that feels alone and invisible yet longs for connection. Two things…
First, listen to the words of the song “The Anonymous Ones” from Dear Evan Hansen. Heed them…
The anonymous ones
Might just need this moment to remind them
That there are more anonymous ones
They’re out there if you take the time to find them
Just to know we’re somehow not alone
Isn’t that all we’re ever really looking for?
Maybe we, we don’t have to be
And second…as the song says, “Maybe we don’t have to be anonymous anymore.” Find the others, and find your voice. In the age of cancel culture, people of all ages are living with their heads down trying to be invisible. They’re hiding from sharing their true feelings and beliefs for fear of being shouted down. It seems safer that way, but in the end, it is undercutting that base human need for love and belonging.
Know that there are others who feel the same way you do.
As Polonius said to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” You are not alone.