I still try always to look to the eyes of strangers. And because my work is all about observation, I think about eye contact and have come to appreciate its nuances. I'm also aware, perhaps more than most, of how rare the practice seems to have become.
One thing I've noticed is how many of the people I most admire—as well as occasional strangers who just strike me with the power of their presence—tend to be those who best connect with others through eye contact.
So what is eye contact all about? What difference does it make?
It suggests you can trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I find you attractive or a score of other messages.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
I suspect this may also hold true in some sub-cultural groups, such as inner-city gangs and abusive households, where day-to-day survival seems to hinge on the same kind of dominance-subservience rituals that apply in the animal kingdom. Here, to those bent on violence, eye contact may be taken as a challenge or even an act of aggression.
In the realm of my experience, though, it's hard to understand how meaningful communication can be done without looking at the face of the person you're conversing with. In my world, eye contact is an indispensable authenticator of any dialog, demonstrating attention, competence, confidence, attraction and, yes, respect. This is the context—you could say the bias—in which my reflections should be taken.
NON-VERBAL MESSAGESAs children we instinctively absorb all things visual, our eyes like little black holes of curiosity. So it's no coincidence that kids look people right in the eyes. Before we're even a year old aren't we already learning that changes in the facial expressions of those we most depend on might make a big difference in how we're treated?
Depending on that treatment, the innocence, the openness, the disarming clarity of our childhood gaze might survive our growing up—if we're lucky. But more often than not it gets pushed down by learned associations like fear, guilt and shame.
And this all works the other way around too. Just as we learn how to interpret messages in others' eyes, we also learn how to send those same messages with our own.
Eye contact—at least in my little slice of the world—is an eloquent form of non-verbal communication. To a stranger, it may say simply I'm here, my receptors are open for business, and I'm ready to interact with you if you like. Add a little smile or perhaps a simple greeting and it suggests I'm sharing a bit of my spirit with you today. With a whole vocabulary of other, sometimes subtle, visual clues, it might say you can trust me, I know what I'm talking about, I find you attractive or a score of other messages.
Acknowledging another human being with your eyes is also an act of generosity. It's a sharing not just of time, attention and some of those implied messages, but also of a sort of spiritual energy. Don't you, as I do, experience a lifting of your spirit when a stranger bestows a smiling greeting on you?
Don't we all have days when we're so sad or angry or ashamed that we just wish we were invisible?
TURNING INSIDE OUT
I know I sometimes feel I don't have enough energy or goodwill even to get through the day, not to mention sharing it with someone else. And don't we all have days when we're so sad or angry or ashamed that we just wish we were invisible?
Sadly, some misplaced instinct tells us keep to ourselves just when we could most use a little human contact—when we're depressed or lonely. Isn't it precisely the diversion of isolation to contact, self-pity to altruism, that so often proves the best antidote for these afflictions?
Might the same factors that make us avoid eye contact with others also cause us to miss the myriad wonders going on all around us every day?
So when I observe the eye-avoidance behavior in others, I know I have a choice. I can either take the hint—whether intentional or not—to keep my distance, or I can share the light of my spirit with them anyway. When I'm on my own game, I'll do the latter; I smile, say hello and wish my fellow human being a good day. Sometimes there's no response...that's okay; I hope the gesture helps in some way.
On a really good day, I might add a little unspoken blessing to my acknowledgment—perhaps wishing the stranger the strength he needs to hold up under whatever that burden he's bearing, and the clarity he needs to find his way out from under it. And in this case, though eye contact wouldn't seem absolutely necessary to convey a blessing, I still try. I guess I hope that, in the same way a handshake seals an agreement, eye contact might help ensure that the "message" gets delivered.
EYE CONTACT WITH NATUREI can't think for long about anything without asking myself how it relates to Nature and the ways we humans interact with Nature. So, here's a two-bit theory for you: Might the same factors that make us avoid eye contact with others also cause us to miss the myriad wonders going on all around us every day?
And, just as the human interaction of giving and sharing can draw us out of ourselves and restore us to emotional and spiritual health, doesn't a similar interaction with Nature produce the same kinds of healing?
Every single day, whether you live in the wilderness or the inner city, you're surrounded by Nature's gaze. Return it.
So, even if you're having a bad day—especially if you're having a bad day—let your eyes be your vehicle to that healing. Look for connections with others. Realize that, as poorly as you may feel about yourself, the person with whom you make eye contact just might need that affirmation, that blessing, more than you do.
Look, too, for connections with Nature. Every single day, whether you live in the wilderness or the inner city, you're surrounded by Nature's gaze. Return it. Send it the blessing of your spirit, your loving intention.
It's all about what I call "seeing generously," the notion that, by looking with care, compassion and wonder, we confer our blessing on every person, place or thing we behold.