I am reading about the early stage of development in children, and about what gives them a sense of security and helps them anchor with stability in this world. It is eye contact.
Babies being mesmerizing and cute is an adaptation for survival. It draws our eyes to them. To look at them. And that helps them feel secure, and so they learn about the world and emotions.
It is said that negligence is subtly but surely the most acute form of abuse. Babies need contact to survive, as much as air, food and cleaning. They need physical contact, eye contact.
I don’t think this need ever goes away. I look at adults who shift their gaze, or rarely make eye contact. How lonely it can get in time. And what a gift to keep ones gaze. With curiosity, openness, vulnerability.
When we first met Jackie, a week before her third birthday, she was shy but giddy. As she relaxed in our presence, she allowed herself to gaze long into our eyes as we drank with thirst from hers, smiling. This was it. Our hook.
If she mirrors our facial expressions, often people say she resembles us, it is because she looks at us intently, and we gaze into her eyes in return. We mirror each other.
At Jackie’s kindergarten I love watching the kids running around. They catch my gaze and I smile. After a few encounters like that, they start to come over to say hi and show off. I didn’t understand it at first, but it was the sustained eye contact. To this day I remember as a kid the adults who looked at me and saw me, who smiled at me with no expectations. I remember their kind gaze.
The burden of shame makes us afraid that people will see through us. Little do we know that having the courage to look up and see the other, we will save ourselves. It takes courage and it takes practice to make intentional eye contact and smile at the cashier, at the restaurant waiter, at school, with colleagues and teachers. On the street, with our boss, with strangers and friends.
I’ve heard many homeless people share that the most painful thing over time is never being looked at. It’s dehumanizing they say. There is little as painful as feeling invisible. Even when you enjoy anonymity. If only at least one person could truly see you.
There is this one cultural difference I have noticed, in the two worlds I’ve lived in. In California, Silicon Valley more precise, everyone smiles, strangers say hi, people open up fast and easy. Sometimes to a fault. I’ve adapted easily honestly. Just a few growing pains at first.
Coming back to Romania was a trip. When I go to meetings (social, business, church) and men ignore women completely, it speaks more about their manners and open-mindedness than about the women attending. It is always fascinating when I see men wake-up, their eye open wide, with genuine interest and surprise, they make eye contact. And they see me as a person, when I happen to talk about my expertise, my background. Then the conversations can be riveting. Men and women have so much to exchange and share with each other. Together the conversations are balanced, filled with teachable moments.
Side-note. In public, smartphones are the easiest escape from eye contact. It makes us feel confident and self-sufficient when we are alone. But that’s a story for another time.
As a rounded conclusion. Don’t be a creep! Remember to blink. Remember to make room for the other and allow the averting of gaze and the return of it. Make silly faces at kids. Play peekaboo. Forget yourself for a moment and enter into another’s world with a smile.