I Contact: Looking The World In The Eye

I gave myself an assignment, which is just as self-indulgent and Oprah-esque as it sounds.  In my defense, my therapist was out of town for almost month, so my self-improvement muscles were aching from neglect.  I decided to work on my vulnerability, but I wanted to do it without too much effort because LAZY.

This is hard.

This is hard.

The assignment, like all well-crafted ones, was simple: make eye contact with people I pass on the running path.

Behold the ingenuity of this idea:

First, I didn’t make the assignment overbroad. I didn’t have to make eye contact with everyone all the time.  I could still avert my eyes on public transportation or when my daughter demanded to know who chewed all of her gum.  Second, I chose a time when I would be less resistant, as exercise wears down my defenses because I am busy working through the Krebs cycle and pushing through the physical discomfort of pounding the pavement.   Third, if I didn’t like the feeling of making eye contact, well, I’d just have to run faster so it would be over sooner.

See that? Narrowly tailored and heart healthy.

I’m not good at eye contact.  I’d guess I am in the bottom quartile of eye contactors for my age group in this country.  Looking into other people’s eyes makes me feel googly inside, which is my mature way of saying it scares me,  Because I am scared of people.  I’m not scared they will steal my soul, but I’m afraid they may look inside and see I don’t have one.  Or I don’t have one worth stealing.  Making eye contact also makes me feel overstimulated– like downing eight Red Bulls with an espresso chaser.   On those rare occasions that I do make eye contact with strangers, I usually find that they smile at me.  And that makes me cry.  I figured if I was running my blazing, 40-year-old-lady speed down the running path, I wouldn’t have enough extra juice to also cry.

I was wrong.

The first person I passed after accepting my assignment was a youngish woman wearing a neon green sports bra and those not-shoe five-toe things.  She was cranking at about a 7-minute per mile pace.  She’ll never have time to look at me, I assumed as I flashed her my pearly whites.  When she smiled back, I felt the familiar swell within me.  It felt like standing on the deck of a listing boat, and it was my body’s way of saying, “here come the tears.”

I fought back.  I swallowed hard. Two more runners were headed my way. Male.  Hard core with fancy running watches and taut thighs.  Naturally, I prayed that they would be too full of Gatorade to offer me any milk of human kindness.

Nope.  They both looked right at me, which pierced my already taxed heart, and they didn’t even smile.   But they both looked me in the eye before they passed, and that was enough to reach that part of me that fears being seen and making human connection.  That same part of me embraces self-check-out lanes at the grocery store.

In a four-mile run, I made eye contact with 11 runners.  Thank god the bikers whizzed by too fast to meet my eyes. .

I hate this assignment.

I don’t make eye contact for a reason.  Mainly, it fucks up an internal monologue in my head that says that the world is hostile and indifferent, but those instant-but-fleeting connections with strangers destabilize that.  Those smiles say something different, something non-threatening and life-affirming. Something that suggests the world is more kind, tender, and embracing than I’d ever imagined.  Those moments of eye contact prove  that other people can see me.  And when we make eye contact, they connect with me.

And sometimes that scares me.


62 thoughts on “I Contact: Looking The World In The Eye

  1. I give myself less challenging assignments like–stop at the candy store for the good caramels.
    I have shed more than a few tears on that path. Linking up physical fatigue and deep emotion is prime water works time. Runners have a common bond that needn’t be spoken. And that alone is worth a tear or two.
    P.S. You had me at Krebs cycle, Smartie!!

  2. Oh, that would have been hard on me. I awful at eye contact. I’ve tried to make my kids be more comfortable with it from a young age but they definitely have my tendency to awkwardly look away!

  3. I am such a dork… Krebs cycle is my favorite anatomy stuff! I am a therapist so eye contact is essential for me, but surprisingly in my own personal life not so much… its hard at best… nice job!

  4. Gorgeous. Some killer lines in this, as ever (I love the segue from Gatorade to the milk of human kindness). When I have an emotional response to little positive interactions with strangers, and all it takes sometimes is another driver’s hand held high in the window as thanks for letting him into my lane, I often think about it as ‘being overwhelmed by humanity’ or by ‘the human condition’. I don’t know where I got this from but, upon reading your post, I realize it basically means the rush of feeling that comes with seeing and being seen, even in the most trivial way. What is the weekly writing challenge?

    • Exactly– searing moments of connection. They slay me. Checkout yeahwrite.me. It’s an on line community that does a writing challenge every Tuesday. It’s a staple in my writing diet.

  5. I am the opposite. I am fundamentally shy, but feel a yearning need to make eye contact with everyone as if to make a connection in this world. I have a need to been seen, as if an afirmation that I am a part of this world. I think this might also be called 4th child syndrome.

  6. It is such a struggle, I know. It seems like it is so easy for some people, but it never has been for me. I was the kid hiding behind my mom’s legs when someone came to the door. My daughter is the same way, and teaching her to look adults (esp. teachers) in the eyes and say hello or thank you or whatever is the hardest thing I’ve had to work on with her.

  7. I don’t know if it’s the southern girl part of me, but I make it a point to smile AND say good morning or hi to almost everyone I pass. I can’t save the world or develop a cure for cancer, but sometimes just acknowledging someone makes the difference. Good for you for pushing yourself.

  8. This made me smile. I gave myself a similar assignment when I was in high school and extremely shy. It was hard then, but it’s easier now (I’m 40 now). Taking the next step and saying “hi” loudly enough for someone to hear is the hard part 🙂

  9. I find exercising creates a connection. I smile at those people, or at least make eye contact on those days where I know my face could crack with a smile. But the rest of the time? That’s why I have an iphone. Great post.

    • That article is fascinating. I wonder if it affects people on the autism spectrum too. I’ve often wondered if that’s why I feel uncomfortable with too much eye contact. Plenty of “spectrum” folks in my family and I suspect I’m on that continuum somewhere too.

      • The quote at the bottom is from well-known autistic writer Temple Grandin. I know that I’ve read quite a few blog posts by other autistics about how difficult it is to process combined visual and auditory input.

  10. I moved from North Carolina to Boston 9 years ago. It took a while not to say hello or greet people. I have perfected the art of staring into the middle distance. Congratulations to you for doing this. I should try it, but I’m afraid I might get beat up.

  11. Yes, eye contact while running. It’s such a weird and kind of spooky thing. I can never figure out at what point to start making eye contact. Because if you’re on a pretty straight path, you can end up having to hold eye contact for way longer than I am comfortable with. I totally get you.

  12. Wow, brilliantly written from start to finish! Loved it. (And I sympathise… my reaction when a stranger makes eye contact and smiles is to check to see if I’ve got anything stuck to my face)

  13. Clearly you are a glutton for punishment with this assignment. I excel at making eye contact with ppl many places-work, restaurants, store etc. But eye contact while exercising (I’m a walker not a runner) just kills me. I feel utterly awkward.

  14. Well, here in Madison, we not only make eye contact but we speak all the time. To people at store, people we pass exercising, people at the adjoining gas pump. I write this because when I go to the city and try to do the same — people just stare. Or run the other way. I’m the freaky lady who talks. City folks can’t deal with that. When running with a few gals while in ATL at TypeA. I spoke and made eye contact with everyone we passed in opposite direction. NO ONE spoke back. So don’t feel bad. We all just get used to whatever is normal amount of social contact — but you faced a fear. And that is always a huge victory.

  15. How apt, the idea that looking into someone’s eyes reveals something deeper that either party may not want to see or have seen…great, vulnerable post.
    Honestly, I make a lot of eye contact. It’s the only way I can connect with people when I’m talking to them. This is why I’m terribly awkward on the phone…
    Oh, and my ability to make eye contact in no way predicates the idea that I’m emotionally healthy. Just wanted to clear that up.

  16. I always feel awkward about eye contact while running in particular – timing is key. Not too soon, because then there’s too much time between making contact and passing by. Not too late, because then it looks like you were intentionally ignoring them and are just responding to their eye contact out of obligation… too many things to think about! And if you’re running laps, do you have to acknowledge them each time around? (>.<)

  17. What an interesting insight into yourself by doing this exercise. Your therapist would be so proud. Hope you try it again and it see if its gets easier the next time.

  18. Now, here I thought we were twins separated at birth, but I love making eye contact on a run. It makes some people so uncomfortable I feel I have superpowers. And it makes other people so happy I feel that I’ve made the world better.
    So the egomaniacal side of me loves running eye contact.
    What other side?

  19. This is fascinating. I’m from the south and we make eye contact with and speak to everyone. Whether it’s appropriate or not. Like most things, we take it too far. Los Angeles isn’t so much like that. Smiling and talking to strangers there makes people think you’re homeless or a serial killer. Those first six months were ugly – I moved there alone. But then it got better, and I mostly still speak to almost everyone I pass whether they think I’m weird or not. Thanks for the reminder. I’m still learning the world is not nearly as cold and indifferent as I think it is, too. Unless you’re in LA haha…

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