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What Happens When You Look A Stranger In The Eye

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They say the eyes are the window to a person’s soul…but how many people do you actually give the privilege of looking into your eyes?

The other day I was in a sh-tty mood, and having a crappy day. I had just sat in my seat on a plane after missing two flights and all I could think about was getting home. I was over it.

Once the plane took off, I found myself tucking my arms in the over-sized t-shirt I was wearing to keep warm because the air conditioner unit was on North Pole status. That’s when I heard, ‘Are you cold? Would you like to use my sweater?’

I turned to see a 65+ year old Italian woman sitting next to me. Yes, I noticed her when I first took my seat on the plane, but I was unengaged. Annoyed about my delays. Probably on my phone clocking the time I wasted that day, and checking emails.

But, I for sure, was not about to turn down a warm sweater. She reached for her bag and pulled out a brand new sweater she had just bought to hand to me, and I was thanking the high heavens for this nice soul that had sat next to me. Throughout the flight, we began conversing and I learned that she was born in Italy, but spent the bulk of her life in Illinois where the Winters were harsh. She finally had enough a few years ago and moved to Surprise, Arizona by herself. She said her family thought she was crazy but she had no regrets as she loves it in Arizona. She also told me that she was returning from vacation in Bermuda.

I was like, ‘whaaaaa? By yourself?’ And she said, ‘yes! I’m very independent!’

At that moment, I felt like I was talking to the future me. She was living her life on my her terms and not letting anything stop her. Not even old age.

A very warm feeling came over me, and suddenly I was thankful for all of the frustrating things that I had encountered that day, as sitting next to Miss-Nice-lady-with-the-sweater, made it all worthwhile. If I hadn’t missed my flight, I would have never met her.

I liked this woman!

Throughout the flight, I helped her with her phone a few times (an Iphone 4) and assisted her with her bags when she needed to retrieve something.

It started making me think about how I could use my free time a little better. Maybe volunteer at a nursing home or as a caregiver. These thoughts seriously went through my head as we started to make our landing. I enjoyed her presence so much! Like I started visualizing myself visiting her on Saturday mornings, running her errands and sitting down for tea while she told me her life stories. I was just that intrigued.

Then she asked me, ‘Can I see your eyes’…and suddenly I went into a shell. I realized that I had been wearing my shades the entire trip. To be honest, I don’t wear shades often, unless I don’t want to be bothered that day, and it had been one of those days.

She said, ‘Why don’t you take off your glasses’ and I responded, ‘I’ve just had a day..it’s been a rough one.’

For some reason, as much as I adored this woman in the short time we had to talk to each other, I would not let her have a peek into my soul. I don’t know what I was afraid of, like she’d find something bad there…or she’d be able to see everything, my past, my fears, my failures, my doubts… but I just wouldn’t do it.

Not that day.

But I’m sure eye contact would have brought us to a deeper level of connecting, and trust.

Although you can Google ‘eye contact with strangers’ and see a million articles on how to avoid it, I have to question why we are taught to avoid those type of connections. A beautiful thing can come out of taking a few seconds just to gaze into another person’s eyes.

 

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Which brings me to a video I recently saw by the tech company Kovert Designs. In an effort to explore the connection that you can have with someone by looking into their eyes in complete silence, they asked eight strangers to pair into four couples and stand across from each other with their eyes closed. On cue, the couples opened their eyes and were instructed to stare at each other for a set period of time. The result was a beautiful connection between most of the participants. One man said of the experience:

“When you let down all the pretenses and your ego drops away, you recognize in other people your own vulnerability, your own higher self… all the good qualities in fact because that’s what you are actually connecting with… you’re not frightened anymore, you’re not running from them. You are looking at a reflection of your own inner state. ”

In this day and age, you can walk down a street in New York and walk past a million people, and not once make eye contact. Everyone is in their own world, on their phones, listening to headphones and so submerged in their own thoughts that a casual interaction with a stranger almost seems more like an interruption versus a potential blessing.   You never really know the people you can meet, and how much you have in common, without taking that time to connect outside of your normal social settings.

Via Kovert:

In the Northern Natal regions of South Africa, Zulu tribes traditionally acknowledge other human beings at the start of every encounter by gazing into each others eyes in silence for 10 seconds, before the elder of the two says “Sawu bona” meaning “I see you”, to which the younger replies, “Sikhona” – “I am here.”

This simple act of acknowledgement is the most important aspect of their daily interaction. For this indigenous group, until they are seen in this way every day, they do not exist.

Our ability to really connect with one another is a huge part of what makes us human. And it is eye contact that plays the lead role in our innate ability to understand each other beyond words; when someone says one thing, but we’re able to interpret something else, or for no words to be exchanged at all, but for a meaning or emotion to somehow be conveyed. This ultimately fuels our capacity to empathise, and as a result, our ability to connect on an even deeper level with one another.

In today’s Western cultures, real “Zulu-esque” eye contact is nearing extinction. Never before in history has our species been as distract-able or had such a lack of presence with one another. And it’s technology that plays a huge role in this evolution; smartphones are beginning to replace the real intimacy of face-to-face connection with the mere exchange of pixels on a screen.

The experiment gave me a lot to think about and I vow to not only be mindful of the energy that I’m putting out, but to also be aware when the opportunity presents itself to connect –especially when it’s a complete stranger.