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Eye Contact

In September 2021, I had the amazing privilege to travel to Spain and walk a portion of el Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James”. El Camino is a network of pilgrimage trails that lead to the tomb of St. James the apostle. Accompanied by three friends, I walked from the city of León to Santiago de Compostela in the span of 13 days. Despite the physically challenging nature of this trip, a big reason I wanted to go on this trip was to rest. Not to rest my body, but to rest my spirit; to receive some spiritual and mental peace. The last year or so of my life had left me feeling very tired and discouraged. Faced with virtual school and work amid the covid pandemic, and other spiritual, emotional, and relational challenges, I had been experiencing a season of darkness. As such, walking el Camino came at the right time to provide me with some light and perspective to encourage my spirit. Journeying with people from around the world, seeing beautiful landscapes, attending mass and praying in numerous churches and cathedrals, and leaning into the unpredictability of the experience was incredibly uplifting for me. I am beyond grateful for the way that this trip offered me new perspectives on life, and for the bounty of spiritual fruit that I was able to receive from this experience.

One fruit came from one of my very last days in Spain, after we had reached Santiago de Compostela. After soaking in the reality that we had completed what we had set out to do, and getting ourselves well fed and well rested, we were now able to take on the role of “tourists” more or less, and explore what this town had to offer. Up until this point, we had certainly encountered numerous people along our journey, but not the quantity that we encountered here in Santiago, as this destination was the ending point for all pilgrims. There had been some days on our trip when we only saw a few souls along the way, so it came as a new challenge to weave through the large number of people that were packed into the small cobblestone streets!

Having a new sense of freedom (namely, not having to wear my 20lb backpack everywhere I went), I felt excited to explore as much of the town as possible within our two short days here. That said, as we weaved through the busy streets, I eventually found myself getting very agitated. Moving through the crowds of people, it appeared to me that everyone I passed seemed to be looking at me. My mind started extrapolating explanations for this strange phenomenon: “Am I not supposed to be walking this way??....Is there something wrong with my clothes or my hair??....Can they tell that I’m American and don’t want me to be here??”. I immediately got defensive and frustrated that people were looking at me, and that I didn’t know why. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t help but continue to notice this happening throughout the day.

Later on, when trying to articulate what I had experienced to my companion, Julia, I eventually came to the realization that there was, in fact, no “phenomenon” occurring after all. In reality, what was actually occurring was that I was not used to being looked at.

Not used to being looked at? How could this be?”, I wondered. At first, this realization was rather shocking to me. But, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. For those of you that don’t know, there’s a common phrase we use to talk about the disposition of people in our city called the “Seattle Freeze”; this is the tendency of people to act rather cold and distant to strangers and everyone outside of their immediate friend group. Unbeknownst to me, since living in Seattle for the past 6 years, I had been conditioned to expect that others would not look at me as they passed, and to not look at others as I passed. Yet, I think even more impactful than the general cold-shoulders of passersby in Seattle, was the heightened person-to-person avoidance amid the pandemic, and the isolation of virtual school and work for the past year and a half. It had become apparent to me in more ways than one that this lonely season of life had impacted my ability to connect with those around me, which was exemplified by my limited capacity to receive eye contact, and to be seen. So, as strange as it is to say, I had grown uncomfortable with having people look at me, and I just hadn't been able to truly realize it until I was faced with an entire sea of people offering a generous helping of eye contact.

Since having made this realization almost a year ago now, I have been thinking a lot more about eye contact. Namely, noticing when it is and is not exchanged. In my mind, to offer someone eye contact implies an openness for connection – for seeing others, and for being seen. Eye contact is a very powerful way to acknowledge or validate someone’s presence and value to you. That means, on the flip side, not receiving it or avoiding it can often be very dehumanizing.

In the depths of our hearts, we all desire to be seen. Sure, sometimes we desire to be seen in a physical or exterior sense – wanting to be acknowledged for our tangible abilities, accomplishments, or looks – but I think when we are honest with ourselves, a more genuine form of this desire is our longing to be seen on an interior level. What does this mean? How can this be accomplished? I think for us to be truly seen by another person on an interior level, we would experience our emotions, thoughts, and experiences being received and acknowledged by the person we are in communication with. In a word, we would feel like our hearts were understood on an intimate level.

So, if the human heart desires to be seen, how have we ended up in a society where it has become the norm for us to look away from the gaze of others? I think we tend to look away because allowing ourselves to be seen requires vulnerability. We don’t want to feel exposed and uncomfortable, especially when we don’t know how our emotions will be received. In light of my defensiveness at being looked at in the streets of Spain, I am guessing that I was reacting to a feeling of being exposed or inspected. I think this can be the case for a lot of us – when we feel ourselves being perceived without the ability to control how others will receive us (such as when we are sharing about ourselves to a group of people), we might tend to look away. When I was encountering a discomfort with being looked at, what I was really experiencing was a more internal discomfort with vulnerability.

Often, we think we need to have everything together in order to be looked at. We feel we must present ourselves in such a way so we won’t receive any judgment or criticism. And it's true: when we put ourselves and our emotions out in the world for others to look at, we put ourselves at risk of being rejected. And when our feelings and experiences do end up being rejected, it can be very wounding. So we hide. We say “don’t look at me”, because it makes us feel safer and more comfortable. We don’t want to feel pain.

But when we live our lives in an attempt to avoid pain and discomfort and make vows against vulnerability, we’ve allowed fear to control us. When we shut others out, either intentionally or not, we can miss out on the opportunity to deeply and genuinely connect and relate. This is not to say we need to openly share our hearts with everyone we meet (certainly an appropriate level of relationship and trust is required for more intimate sharing), I just mean to say that our tendencies to self-protect out of fear may inhibit our ability to open our hearts for authentic relationship.

So how do we begin to heal from our tendencies to hide and look away? I think we must begin again the practice of looking – and looking to truly see what is in front of us. When someone looks at us, offers us their full attention to receive us in whatever state we are in, it can be incredibly healing. Our society has become so inundated with distractions and that we’ve fallen out of practice of being present. To be present with someone, to sit with them, to look at them, to care for them, to attend to their needs… this is how we grow in genuine relationship with one another! Again, not looking to respond or react, but to understand and to receive the gift of the person who is in front of us.

And maybe for some of us, this means looking at ourselves first. How often do we (metaphorically or not) withhold eye contact from ourselves? How often do we avoid looking at the things within ourselves that might cause us to feel vulnerable or cause us pain? How often do we reject our own emotions or needs, because we don’t want to be faced with our own weakness and dependence?

When we begin to truly see ourselves – with all of our wounds, and mistakes, and scars, and vices, and shortcomings – and learn to look at ourselves with compassion and love, we finally find security. But how can we even begin to look at ourselves with acceptance and love with our wounded and imperfect nature? Because this is how our Creator looks at us first. Unfortunately, the world says our worth can be found in our achievements, in our wealth, in our relationship status, in our education, in our physical abilities, and in our jobs. These are not inherently bad things, but these things are not what make us valuable; we would always fall short if this were the case. Here is the Good News: Our God is not measuring our value as the world measures our value – our Lord sees us in our weakness, and loves us without reservation. In fact, He actually comes to meet us exactly where we are – amidst the messiness of our lives – and just wants to be present with us. He sees us and delights in us because He made every ounce of our being, and each part was given to us for a greater good and purpose, even the parts of ourselves that we might have challenges with. Regardless of our flaws, we have an inherent dignity that was gifted to us the moment of our conception, when we were loved into existence and created in His image. When we truly have faith in this, this is where we find security. In order to look at ourselves and allow ourselves to be looked at by others, we must first be seen with love, by Love.

For a lot of my life, I wanted to hide from the gaze of God. I didn’t want to be looked at by Him, because I was afraid He would reject me. But, Praise God, I have come to know the heart of Christ, and have encountered His true gentleness and mercy. Our God is not afraid to look at and use our brokenness to make something beautiful, so we have no need to be afraid of being looked at by Him. How beautiful it is to see ourselves through the eyes of God, with all of our shortcomings and faults, and be able to say with confidence, “Look at me!”.

In the end, my prayer for us is this: that we may all be able to rejoice in being looked at!


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