Look me in the eye
I spend a lot of time on sidewalks. I walk to and from Mass every morning, to my car that may well be parked many blocks away, to the grocery store and post office and library. And most days I run, too, a few miles along the river by my house, either south to the city or north to the park. I see the same bleary-eyed dog walkers early in the morning, the smoking hairdressers on the stoop at the corner, the ambitious, athletic mom with the double jogging stroller. I pass neighbors and tourists and the A.A. members that meet just a few doors down at all hours of the day and days of the week. My life is full of people. And I love people.
And you know what else I love? Looking people in the eye. I love greeting the friendly father I often pass in the alley behind my street. (“Can you say, ‘Good morning’?” he encourages his little towheaded son as he happily pedals by on his trike.) I love celebrating the unspoken bond that we runners all seem to have. (“Good job, girl!” said a man running by as I stretched my calves and untied my laces on my stoop after a particularly long and sweaty run.) I love helping the elderly man I see daily with his walker down the steps of the chapel near me, having both stayed to pray until the stoke of six, the sisters locking the doors behind us. (“The Lord was so pleased that you were there!” he’ll say to me.) I lock eyes with them all, these neighbors of mine, sharing in sweet, passing moments of connection and encounter and joy.
I’m not surprised that these little happenstances delight me so. After all, the eyes are the window to the soul, they say. But what about when that window’s blinds or curtains or shutters are closed? Or when it is boarded up entirely? Oh, it kills me. It kills me when the smoking hairdressers glue their eyes to their phones as I pass, dodging my searching glance. When my mulleted neighbor who always sits on his stoop, who feeds the sparrows with crumbs from a plastic bag, who must know so well all the goings on of the neighborhood, refuses to respond to my greeting. When runners passing by set their chins down and their eyes to the ground. But, wait! I want to call out. I’m right here! Don’t you see me? Don’t you want to exchange a smile, a hello, a friendly comment about the weather? But no, I suppose they don’t.
I often wonder why these seeming rebuffs so disturb me. After all, it’s not like I’m starved for social interaction, devoid of friends, in need of validation from mere strangers at every turn. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say: I want to be seen, and known, and loved. I want people I encounter, from my beloved roommates to the new barista down the street, to feel the same. And perhaps it’s silly to place such importance on ephemeral interactions I have with people who may never know my name, but I know that the longing for connection deep in my heart is not something to be discounted or dismissed. And I know, too, that it is not unique to me. We all, in our very nature as humans, are created for relationship, both with the One who created us, and with one another. Perhaps I’ve let that desire of mine grow to an unusually strong degree, hence my forlorn disappointment when passersby evade my gaze. But I’d much rather feel that tender pang at a missed opportunity to see another, even for a moment, than replace it with apathy. I’d much rather live with an open heart quick to love and susceptible to pain.
For now, I’m choosing to rejoice in little victories. Like the briefest of conversations I had with the hairdresser yesterday as I complimented her on the flowers she had just planted in the plot of dirt along the street. The glimpse I got of an image of Jesus just inside my mulleted neighbor’s door. The pained half-grimace, half-smile I exchange with fellow runners also nearing utter exhaustion. There is hope, I know. There is always hope.
So here’s my advice, if I may: cultivate that desire you have to be seen and known and loved. Say hello to the people you pass every day, at least the ones who will return your smiles. And, little by little, we just might bring new light to this world. One sidewalk at a time.