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On momentarily dwelling in the oceanic depth of a shared gaze
The other day, I walked into an ice-cream shop, bursting at the seams with people and the trails of the heatwave they brought with them. In the shop, there were no queues, and seemingly no ice-cream counters either. Just a sea of languishing bodies. The air-conditioning system had given up on its only job. It, like us, was not built for the invisible tropical hellfire that was engulfing a city otherwise known for tranquil weather.
I scanned the tops of peoples’ heads to get a sense of which way I should be moving. On the far end, I spotted the aproned staff. Darting in their direction, I decided I’d forego tasting flavours today. I shuffled and ambled my way to the ice-cream scooper, lost in thoughts of my usual order, a dark chocolate and strawberry… until I saw her in full sight.
Her face was youthful and her hair jet black, but her back was stiff, her brows furrowed, and her cheeks taut and tense, as she read the ever-increasing line of order tickets on the counter before her. Head low, she dished out scoops of ice-cream mechanically, like a dreary loop of broken tape. Cone after cone after cone. With each passing second, the crowd’s enthusiasm was curdling into impatience.
After about a dozen cones, suddenly, she looked up at me. I didn’t know if I was next because no one knew who was next. So I did the only thing there was to do.
I held her gaze and cracked a wide smile.
I wasn’t next, but it didn’t matter. Because she smiled back. Her brows softened, and my shoulders relaxed, and the room lit up… bathing us in a magical momentary lightness.
Conversations without words can be so powerful, but conversations without eye contact can be so colourless. Take the existential exhaustion of our virtual interactions. In whathas termed the Zoom Paradox, we find that the only way to hold someone’s gaze on a video call is, counterintuitively, by looking at the camera instead.
Not all gazes are equal though. A gaze can be a glower, a glare, or just glassy-eyed indifference. It can be a snub when your boss looks down at her smartphone in the middle of a conversation. It can intimidate when you are stared down by a stranger as you walk back to your parked car alone on a dark street. It can dominate when the big dogs want to let my docile mutt Raksha know who the boss is, out in the dog park.
It’s only the rare occasion of a shared gaze — one that is laced with the tenderness of mutuality — that creates the force-field that we think of as eye-contact.
Eye-contact can soothe, soften, stir up and arouse. It tells Raksha whatever she needs to hear to give me the cheeriest morning wake-up tail wag when I look at her. It opens a window into my husband’s tired soul when he’s had the type of day he’d rather not talk about. It sneaks a moment’s cheer in the repetition and routine of a weary ice-cream scooper at the end of her shift.
Eye-contact that is unafraid of its own oceanic depth can bridge language, distance, and whole realms of sentience – where even the most articulate words fail.
I’ve often wondered why. For a time, I thought it was that the body conveys its wisdom when you meet eyes in a way that the mind may not know how to, by using words.
Now I wonder if it’s much simpler.
Whatever I meant to say to the ice-cream scooper, only she knew what she thought I was saying. Maybe it doesn’t matter what’s meant to be said, and it doesn’t matter what’s eventually heard. Maybe we do ‘say it best when we say nothing at all’, because we bestow a far greater gift. Of seeing the other person as they are.
To be mutually seen is to share a moment of primal synchrony that is evolutionarily prior to our speaking selves.
What we say just doesn’t matter if we can make someone feel seen.
Thanks Kathy Krone and friends at 🌈6️⃣ for the conversations, and Sairam, Justin, Wes, Chao, Hari and Charlie for feedback!