Monday, January 30, 2017

Eye Contact

The New Year in Seattle has started off mostly cold and rainy, but Friday was suddenly and surprisingly summery. The sun shined and temperatures rose into the 50's. My teaching day is over by lunch on Fridays, my wife was on a business trip, my daughter is off at college, so I found myself footloose and fancy free with most of the day ahead of me. I had a few errands I wanted to run and decided to do them on foot.

I wasn't the only one out and about: indeed, the sidewalks were thronged with people. Back in my days as a junior executive at the chamber of commerce we noted that Seattle was possibly the only business center on earth that closed down for sunshine. Everyone I knew simultaneously had "a meeting out of the office right after lunch" and it was invariably too far away to make it back by the end of the day. I could see Freeway Park from my office window and when the winter sun came out it filled up with folks attending those far away "meetings."

I was feeling outright giddy like the rest of my neighbors and as I walked, I decided to play a game. I was going to try to make eye contact with each person I passed. I didn't really have a purpose for this game other than the fact that I enjoyed looking into those sunny day faces. Of course, I didn't stare them down: it was more a matter of keeping my head up and looking at them in a friendly way until they connected with me, then after a beat, as politeness dictates, I averted my gaze.

Many kept their gaze fixed on the distance or on their phones or on the ground at their feet, preoccupied or self-protective, never giving me a chance. Others whose eyes I caught looked away quickly, as if our eye contact was a sort of accident or even a possible affront. I know they say that certain animals see eye contact as a challenge; maybe there was some of that in there. Some seemed uncomfortable with my eye contact, probably worried that I was about to solicit them for a donation or sex or something. But the best, of course, were the people who smiled at me when our eyes connected; quick, friendly acknowledgments that we had indeed locked eyes. Naturally, I smiled back.

These were strangers in the city where making eye contact is a dodge-y business at best. Eye contact can be perceived as an invitation, one that many of us don't chose to send to every random stranger. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, so maybe at some level it's about privacy, an attempt to protect, or at least be judicious about those who would peer too deeply. Obviously, once we get to know another person we permit more and more eye contact, until we're friends or even lovers who notoriously gaze unblinkingly into one another eyes, connecting from the inside.

As preschool teachers, perhaps the greatest privilege is that we spend our days making eye contact with the children we teach. At least I do. Young children have not yet developed a need to "protect" themselves and they feel little shame or concern about status or affront or solicitation as they look back in our eyes. Nearly every conversation I have, every day, is one in which I am looking into their eyes and they are looking right back into mine. Sure, during the first weeks of school, many of them look away in shyness, but by now that is largely behind us. I don't have to play a game with them, nor them with me: our souls are wide open to one another in every interaction. They will look into you and you into them as they laugh or cry, as they're afraid or confident, as they're worried or excited. It's as if everything is better when connected.

What a gift that is to spend my days that way.

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