In this fast-spinning gyroscopic world, society clings to hard-and-fast categories.
Black or white
Red or blue
Foreigner or citizen
Us or them
Categories give us a handhold to grip, something to steady us as we try to make sense in the dizziness. These days, we’re holding on for dear life.
Not for their dear lives, mind you, but for our own.
We should recognize, though we often don’t, that people don’t precisely fit into categories. Individuals fit into multiple categories all at once. We are all of us out-of-the-box, bursting through barriers, blurring the edges. No one neatly fits the stereotypes. Labels itch in the wearing; the only accurate one-size-fits-all = HUMAN BEING.
It takes courage to look into someone’s eyes and see them for who they are rather than who you think they should be. Face to face, eye to eye.
We say “eye to eye” to describe our agreements, when we and others see issues from the same perspective. But how often do we actually look someone in the eyes? Especially someone with a different background, or someone with whom we disagree, or a stranger?
How long do you think you could sustain eye contact with anyone, even a loved one?
A 2016 study at Stony Brook University discovered that four minutes of sustained eye contact increases intimacy. Amnesty International recreated the study in Germany, arranging strangers, many of them recent immigrants, seated across from native Europeans. The results feel tangible. I dare you to watch it without emotion.
I asked my husband to sustain eye contact with me. I set a timer on my phone and for four minutes we sat facing each other on the edge of the bed. Even after almost three decades of marriage, those four minutes felt strangely, uniquely, intense. I chattered like a talkative preschooler almost the whole time (I didn’t read any rules about not talking, and I couldn’t help myself). Even with the safest, most loving person in my life, it took uncommon courage to intentionally look into his eyes.
No wonder we prefer categories, boxes, stereotypes. Eye contact fosters intimacy and intimacy requires courage. Intimacy requires more from us; it might ask us to change.
Most of us prefer to view others from a safe distance. These days, that distance has gotten wider, so much greater than our newly-required six feet. We’ve physically and emotionally entrenched ourselves…and others.
Obviously it would break all social norms to recreate this study throughout our days with each person we encounter. Talk about awkward.
But what might change if we made it a point to always look people in the eyes?
What might we do differently, practically during these days of pandemic panic, to increasingly look through the eyes of others?
How might our perspective change, shift, alter?
How might we see others, and the space of the planet they inhabit, differently?
In movies I’ve heard the battlefield order, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” In other words, don’t react too early. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all put down our weapons and looked into the eyes of those we suppose to be our enemies?
Brene Brown continues to remind us, “Courage is contagious.” It seems to me, especially now in this increasingly divided world, that contagious courage is exactly the virus we need to spread.
In the comments, share one practical way you have or will look someone in the eyes. Let’s enCOURAGE each other!