Some of the best moments with my nieces and nephews are the least concrete. The events that precipitate them are lost to memory, no words were exchanged, but for some reason a particular meeting of the eyes and mind can be recalled with all its initial vividness, rich solid moments of knowing. We’ve all had those times when a clear accord in understanding is communicated in a barely perceivable expression, yet it feels as clear and wide open as a billboard. Having nieces and nephews offers the pleasure of seeing growth through every stage, and the moments when that eye connection happens span the years. Part of the larger organism of the extended family, we are actors and audience in the play of family events, our roles determined by biology, so every moment of personal connection is a moment of grace, a transmission of understanding that can happen with any age since it relates to the ageless mind beyond the face.
It happens with my students as well. Something comes up that I know will have personal relevance to someone. I look at them and they see in my eyes that I know their connection to it. And it can be much more diffuse than that, but the moment of understanding feels true in the way that verbal statements never can. Graham Green wrote in his novels about how as we got to know a person better we couldn’t help but love them. Often people can have a long history of time spent together and yet grow in understanding. To really see how another reacts to something, what things attract and repel them, requires attention. Too often vision blocked by an inner narration that’s already decided who the other is and tends to see only what supports the ideas of the character created.
In the class discussion last night my students said their peers often preferred relationships at a distance to actual meetings, preferred Facebook friends to friends in person. It seemed clear that was felt as a loss. Though we may not recognize what’s missing because it feels so much safer, the visual dimension is where we really connect, not limited by the words at our disposal or prechosen images posted on a website. In the realm of embodiment, friends mirror each other. The more closely they pay attention, the more still they become. Endorphins are released. Understanding grows and is communicated through the eyes. It’s a realm both subtle and deep, more available to memory. Without physical presence, experience becomes less vivid. Like a personal fog, this loss of vitality is isolating.
Human beings recognize thousands of facial expressions. It may be the first knowledge we accumulate as infants. Once we’ve moved on to words we forget how much is communicated through the body and face. If we get too involved in our inner narration, too isolated within our technology, we may lose the most important channel for understanding we have. Seeing.