Picture the last time someone gave you their full attention, and you could sense in that moment the depth of their care for you. In my experience, this is something I have known more fully in my Christian walk through being in relationship with the “God who sees me,” as Hagar did in the account of her distress in the desert. God had responded to her with compassion when she least expected it (Gen. 16). Perhaps you, too, have known the experience of being in the center of His attentive care. But as humans we often struggle to offer this kind of pure and meaningful connective experience to others.
Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person feels like he or she is in another world because of a little glowing rectangle in their hand? Have you ever been that person not giving your full attention to someone because you just cannot quite pull yourself out of scrolling through your phone? It is so tempting for us to compulsively check email, Instagram, or anything really, just to avoid being present.
While this is the most obvious example in the present technology age, it is not the only example of distractions that keep our gaze averted from the people right around us. Culture feeds on this drive for finding distractions. While we compulsively connect through technology, we wonder why we feel so disconnected. We dislike the restless loneliness we feel in ourselves, and so off we go again looking for more distractions. Alcohol, television, food, online shopping, latest sports updates, news…shall I go on? We call it relaxing or unwinding, but what we get, instead, is numbness, disconnection, and a craving for more. If we were more honest, our so-called relaxing is a cheap substitute for peace. Peace in our relationships, peace with God, peace in our own minds. The “peace” that we’ve been sold glazes our eyes over from betraying the pain within us and from seeing the pain in other’s eyes.
One of the reasons people often turn to outside distractions is that if we allowed ourselves to slow down, we would find ourselves distracted by our own brain with its racing thoughts and emotions, particularly fear and shame. (See my earlier blog Relational Hide and Seek for more on shame and attachment). This fear and shame are heightened when someone we are close to attempts to have a conversation that we find uncomfortable. We still cannot bear to come out of hiding and bring ourselves to look at another person for long, because to do so would be to feel seen and possibly shame. Mike Mason (1999) put it well, “Instead of seeing people, we’re good at keeping them just out of focus, looking past or through them, avoiding direct looks, never touching anyone with our eyes. How cold and alienating this is!” (pp. 132-33).
Too many of our homes are filled with disconnected people who are afraid to look each other in the eye. Perhaps this results from neglecting to receive one another with gentleness and hospitality in our eyes as Christ did. Instead, children are afraid to lift their gaze to see their parent’s scowl. Spouses are afraid to turn and search the other’s face because they can already envision the look of anger from the words being spewed over them.
Eye Contact and Relational Security
It is a big enough problem that researchers have studied the correlation between the length of a child’s gaze and attachment threatening stimuli. They found that “Children with [social anxiety disorder] are, after an initial second, vigilant for stimuli they find threatening, but once they detect a threatening stimulus, they quickly become avoidant of it” (In-Albon, Kossowsky, & Schneider, 2010, p. 232). Children without social anxiety disorder do not engage in this vigilant/avoidant eye movement pattern. The researchers reported that these results are consistent with research done with anxious adults (In-Albon, Kossowsky, & Schneider, 2010).
While the avoidance of eye contact is laden with communication, maintaining eye contact also says a lot. In one study on the correlation between eye contact and empathy, the researchers found a pattern of more eye contact from those with the trait of emotional empathy than those with less emotional empathy (Cowan, Vanman, & Nielsen, 2014). While there are many more things we can communicate with our eyes, it is interesting to note that the way we use our eyes communicates to the other person whether we are for them, interested in what they are saying, and care about their experience. These findings most likely apply best to Western cultures. However, the same question of how we use our eyes to increase trust and empathy in other cultural settings is worth considering. So regardless of where you live or what culture you are from, pause and consider whether you are pushing people away with your eyes or ready to receive them.
When we are using our eyes as instruments of love, we are imitating “the God who sees” and bringing back into focus those He holds dear. Challenge yourself to set down the distractions. Choose to see others. And wait to see if it does not change your relationships.
Cowan, D. G., Vanman, E. J., & Nielsen, M. (2014). Motivated empathy: The mechanics of the empathic gaze. Cognition and Emotion, 28(8), 1522–1530. https://doi-org.ezproxy.tiu.edu/10.1080/02699931.2014.890563
In-Albon, T., Kossowsky, J., & Schneider, S. (2010). Vigilance and avoidance of threat in the eye movements of children with separation anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(2), 225–235. https://doi-org.ezproxy.tiu.edu/10.1007/s10802-009-9359-4