I grew a beard once, kept it for about a month, and felt self-conscious the whole time. I’d walk down the street and assume everyone who saw me was thinking, “Hey, look at that guy! He’s not supposed to have a beard!” The reality, of course, was that no one was thinking that about me. They weren’t thinking anything about me. It was my own stored image of myself that I was having trouble with. Every time I looked in a mirror, I was startled. I wasn’t supposed to have a beard, because I’d never had one before. I did have a mustache for many years, and one day I shaved it off. People who saw me all the time didn’t know who I was. When my daughter came home from school that afternoon, she cried.
In some related way, I’m accustomed to the way people look with their glasses on. It seems that most people wear glasses these days, and wear them all the time. The glasses are, at least to me, part of their face, part of what they look like. I sometimes wonder if a long time ago, before eyeglasses were invented, everyone was walking around bumping into each other and tripping over rocks. Maybe this was such a common occurrence that nobody even bothered to say “Excuse me” or “Who put that rock there?” because you could be saying it all day. Or maybe people had no other choice but to force their eye muscles to work harder, so they all had better vision back then. That’s possible. I have no idea.
Here’s something weird that happens once in a while, though. I’ll be standing with someone I’m very familiar with, someone who wears glasses, and the person will suddenly take them off. Right in mid-sentence, they’ll take off their glasses, to do what? Clean them? Rub the bridge of their nose? I don’t know. I just want them to put the glasses back on. They don’t look like the same person. My stored image of them is rattled, and I actually feel a little ill. It’s the same feeling I imagine I would have if they just tore off parts of their face and stood there wanting to continue the conversation. They’re talking away and I’m thinking, “Put them back, now!” The funny thing is, if a total stranger were to walk over to us at that moment, this new person wouldn’t notice anything unusual. My friend would look normal, even without the glasses.
Have you ever had this experience? You enter a room that you’ve been in a hundred times, and something major has been changed. Maybe somebody has painted the walls a different color. You know it’s different, but if you had to swear under oath about what color it was before, you couldn’t do it. You don’t know what color the room was, but you’re sure it wasn’t this color. Now here’s the thing. If the room had been painted any other color, even just a different tint or shade, you’d still know. You’d recognize that something was different, no matter how subtle. What’s happening there? You’re comparing what you see with the stored image, and you’re aware that something changed. This must mean that some part of your brain knows exactly what color those walls used to be. But you don’t. I wonder how that works.
When I haven’t seen a young child for many years and then meet up with him, I expect the child to look the same. I can’t believe this six-foot tall, hairy person is that little boy. Even while my mouth is saying hello, my mind refuses to accept it. When I see television actors from decades ago and they look completely different, I get a little upset. It’s only been forty-five years; did they have to get so old and change so much? Did they at least try to stay looking the way they do in the reruns?
We relinquish our stored images with great reluctance. I haven’t been to the site of the World Trade Center since it was destroyed. I’ve seen the empty space where the buildings used to be, but from a distance. I have yet to stand where I stood so many times, straining to lean back far enough to see the tops of the towers. I know the buildings are gone, but in my mind the image remains fixed.
Maybe this is why when we lose loved ones, we continue to hear their voices, feel their presence, and even imagine that we see them on occasion. My mother died in 1997, yet I still catch myself thinking that I should call her to see what she’s doing for Thanksgiving. And this must be why, when we leave our jobs or get divorced, something inside us is shaken so hard. Even if we saw the change coming, the stored image doesn’t go quietly.
I may grow a beard again someday. But I’ll be sure to walk down the street and warn everyone first.