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.
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.