When my children were younger, I taught them to look at adults when they spoke to them. “Give her your eyes,” I would say when someone asked them questions or complimented their Sunday clothes. This is basic courtesy. It’s the foundation of face-to-face communication. When you look into the eyes of another human being, you are saying, “I am listening.”
When I demonstrated for my children how to safely cross the street, I taught them to make eye contact with the drivers. “When you look at them and you know that they see you, then you can cross in front of them without worrying,” I would say as we idled at the edge of a sidewalk, making our way to school in the morning.
Something happens when two sets of eyes lock. There’s a silent click that occurs, a momentary understanding, a brief acknowledgment. That moment may not translate into anything permanent or even positive. It may not get filed away as a significant memory, but there is magic in seeing and being seen.
I try to practice what I preach, making eye contact with all people, even those who don’t conform to the norms of society. I try to look without staring into the eyes of the disabled. I want my eyes to speak when my words might be too clumsy. I want my smile to say “Hello! I’m happy to see you!” I want to remember the words of Robert Hensel, the man born with Spina bifida who holds the Guinness World Record for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair. He once said, “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.” I want to see more.
I remember so clearly when I fell in love with my husband, nearly a quarter of a century ago. This was the first time I participated in the romantic equivalent of a staring contest. It seems pretty cheesy now, but in the initial puppy love phase, we would look deeply into each other’s eyes without feeling foolish or pressured to break the gaze. The more and better he knew me—the real me, not the “First Date” version—the more I could allow myself to be seen by him. During our dating years, when he sometimes saw me at less than my best—throwing up that one time or post-wisdom teeth removal with bloody gums and high on pain meds, this vulnerability became easier.
We may not gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as much now, but I have been known to enter a room and stare at him while trying to remember why I came into that room. I’m not sure if that counts, but it does seem to help. Maybe he’s my North Star and his job is to realign my compass so I can get back on track. He raises his eyebrows as if to say, “Can I help you?” and I squint my eyes in concentration as if to say, “Hang on. Don’t anybody move. I’m thinking.”
It’s remarkable what truly seeing can accomplish. And what a difference it can make if we just look up and give each other our eyes.