When I was in trouble when I was little, my father would demand, “Look at me while I’m talking to you.” I was too ashamed and, frankly, terrified to look this beloved, burly man in the eye.
Then in the late 90’s, I studied nonverbal behavior and taught Interpersonal Communication 20+ times at IVY Tech Community College in Valparaiso. In the United States, eye contact is an indication of honesty and sincerity. My dad was a wise man. He knew I couldn’t lie and maintain eye contact. My eyes would have revealed a big fat liar if I denied lighting matches in the alley – one of many stupid things I did while growing up in Chicago. To be caught lying in our house felt like a death sentence.
I used to hate that my eyes gave away my truth. I hated that uninvited guests entered through the window to my soul to see my emotions, the real me. I unsuccessfully tried to hide my feelings, those powerful sensations I wear on my sleeve. I would want to say to perceived soul intruders, “MYOB.” MYOB – Mind Your Own Business – was a normative response from older siblings in my house.
I got used to MYOB – after the initial feeling that I did something wrong by asking something, anything – and I’d think, “Okay.” To this day, the shiver of MYOB restricts my ability to ask questions. In 1997, I thought, Really, Doctor, my son has retinoblastoma? Okay. My friend Susie was with me during that diagnosis, and she asked, “Is that cancer?” Honest to goodness, I gasped at the question. I thought, Doesn’t she know about MYOB? (And yes, my son is a cancer survivor. He is fine and lives an incredibly full life with one eye.)
(BTW, MYOB is a real curiosity stifler and is not recommended as a useful quip.)
Back to eye contact: To protect myself from interlopers in intense moments, I divert my eyes. Insightful friends and family know that if I look away, something is up. I cannot win.
Eye contact also indicates interest, attention. Philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She referred to it as a miracle. In 2004, we taught Weil’s work in the freshmen Core at Valparaiso University. I’d claim that miracles occur in conversation. When students expressed doubt, I’d argue, “You don’t believe me? A conversation led me to marry a man, commit to it for the rest of my life, and led us to have five children.” If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Awareness of eye contact is a big, big thing, and my husband Tim is an eye contact champ. Once when I was mad at him (it happened only once), he deliberately planned dinner at a restaurant with booths. As I sat across from him, he looked and looked and looked at me. Finally I said, “Would you cut me some slack with the eye contact? I can’t take it.” He knew that the key to reconnecting was to look each other in the eye. Smart man, kind of like my dad.
Shawn Achor, Harvard psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage, researched how eye contact leads to relationship building, a key component to happiness. How do we cultivate eye contact while social distancing? We make bigger efforts, we get creative, and we know it’s worth it.
This morning, in his Daily Meditation for the Center of Action and Contemplation post, Richard Rhor wrote: “When [Jesus] met a person, . . . he really believed that God was somehow present in that person, so he looked for that presence through all the overlying contradictions to it, until he found it. Then he addressed himself to that point in the person. As the Hindus also say, the divine in him saluted the divine in the other. When anyone does that, it tends to awaken the divine in the other, who is thus invited to speak from that place in return. [Notice the mutuality! It begins with one person’s generous gaze, which is then returned in kind.]”
Rhor, Achor, and others encourage me to look people in the eye. It can be uncomfortable, and there are parameters. I’m not looking to be perceived as a stalker. But I am a carrier of deep spirituality, goodness, and love. When I was younger, I tried to hide what might be revealed by my eyes – my bad behavior, weaknesses, my unworthiness. I was afraid that someone would see the real me, the imposter, the one who is trying to be good but is really a lighter of matches. I’m grateful for aging. We grow up and out of those beliefs.
“Seek and ye shall find” (Matthew 7:7-9). There is goodness everywhere including ourselves and others. We just have to pay attention and really see.
Namaste – the Light in me honors the Light in you.