Captain's Blog: Stardate 41818.1
I can't stop this feeling
There's nothing I can do
'Cause I see everything when I look at you.
Taking a seat in the lunchroom my seventh-grade year was always a challenge, which is why I eventually finagled the illustrious private dining room known as the nurse’s office. But before I discovered this in-no-way-unfortunate accommodation, I would try to find a place to sit with the people I knew best: the kids from my grammar school.
What no one had told me, though it didn’t take long to figure out, was that someone had given most of these kids tickets to the cool side of the food chain, and mine must have gotten lost in the mail. One day, to try and short circuit the system, I sat down at “the” table before everyone else had arrived, poised and ready to take my rightful place among my peers. They couldn’t keep me from sitting there if I got there first.
Two girls stopped at the bench across from me at the lunchroom table. Hesitating, they both sat down slowly. If synchronized sitting was a sport, they would have medaled. What happened next was fascinating. The two of them both started staring at me. Right in the eyes. Not saying a word, mind you, just…staring. Then one of them, without breaking eye contact, leaned towards the other, slowly raised her hand to hide her lips, and whispered. All the while never breaking eye contact with me.
Smiles followed the whispers, and then they both stood back up, together, and selected a new table for the cool crowd. My master plan had failed, though I had succeeded in changing the map of the lunchroom biodome.
* * * * *
Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School at the start of the 1990s might as well have been a coming-of-age situation comedy on one of the major networks. The teachers’ names alone are better than any I could ever come up with: Monton, Pingle, Schick, Skowron, and the Southern Belle who gave us hell, Ms. Glada Vaughn (please reread the name with your best Blanche Devereaux) was our school principal. I have stories about each of them, though chances are I would have to change the names. And I can never find pseudonyms that would do the real names justice.
As I unpack the clutter from my “mind palace” (thank you Steven Moffat), I have figured out that my instinctual response to someone throwing me a lingering glance has been wired wrong since then. I almost always perceive eye contact as threatening, especially when evaluating a new situation.
For example, a friend once flattered me with the notion that finding dates at the bar must have been easy for me. It was never the case. Frankly, I told him, rarely did anyone express such an interest when I’d be out. But looking back, I do recall making extended eye contact with men from time to time. Which I reasonably understood as their way of asking me to leave. No doubt this eye contact issue has been present in other situations as well.
Psychology Today confirms that eye contact can have a powerful impact on the psyche: “…that feeling looked at inclines people to become more attuned to their own body's physiological responses (heart rate, sweating, and breathing) as well as how they might be perceived by others.” While in many cases this can be a good thing, as it can help with memory retention and recall of verbal material, it can also have it’s downsides. “The gaze of others can trigger intense feelings of shame and other negative self-evaluations in socially anxious individuals, for instance.” (Katherine Schreiber, Psychology Today)
As I gave this interesting revelation some thought, I began wondering what my eye contact could suggest to other people. Wanda Thibodeaux of Inc. suggests that lack of eye contact can suggest one is “unprepared,” anxious, or that “think you're better or have a higher social standing than the person you're listening to.” Interpreted another way, lack of eye contact could be construed as an acknowledgement or admission that one does not deserve to be here.
Bringing it back to Queer Eye, one of the men on the show was a struggling comedian. When they asked him to do a set (in an American Legion, no less) and Jonathan’s one critique was that Joe wasn’t making eye contact with his audience. This meant, even though his timing was pretty solid, his jokes were funny(ish) and his overall act well-rehearsed, it wasn’t landing. Perhaps, if he wasn’t feeling confident that he should be there, he may have been communicating to his audience that they shouldn’t be either.
Which brings up another memory for me. Six years ago I took an amazing workshop with (humble brag) Betty Buckley. It was a weekend intensive and it was definitely a life changing experience. As we each worked on our songs, one of the final exercises was to select specific individuals to look at, directly, as we sang. The result, I still remember, was body shattering. It was amazing. As I think about that this minute, for the first time in a while, I’m not certain whether or not this lesson found itself manifest in my work. It’s an awareness I will definitely be checking in my practice.
As I unpack my mental closet, I am tossing out any of the baggage that may still carry over from that seventh-grade lunch room. I deserve to be here. We all do. And the next time I see you, I will look you in the eyes and tell you so.