The language of eye contact


Communication and recognition beyond words

One night over the Christmas break I found myself at a small saloon with a few friends in Eden, Utah. We had left the comfort of the living room to grab a beer. We arrived appropriately bundled for the few feet of accumulating snow with two guitars in hand and enjoyed the rowdy company of a group of middle-aged strangers into the night. 

Before leaving, the strangers requested a final song. We stood round the small horseshoe-shaped bar, arms round one another, and sang “Red is the Rose.” As we sang, slow and melodiously, I looked at these strangers, watching each from face to face, observing a slow change in their countenance. 

The lady who owned the bar, who was especially rowdy and welcoming, watched us intently, and in her eyes, as she beheld the simplicity of our voices and the grandeur of the words we sang, tears began to well and spill onto her cheeks. In her eyes I saw both a receiving of and a yearning for an overwhelming beauty that extended from our voices but reached beyond what we could see. 

The music was intermingling with her soul and in a moment I could see, through her eyes, the beauty and truth of goodness at work. She did not shift her eyes from us. When we concluded she said with the weight of simplicity, “That was the most beautiful thing I have seen.” I do not know what she saw in that moment, but I do not think it was merely us standing arm-round-arm in a small saloon. In that moment, I saw her seeing, though what she was seeing is and will remain hidden from me. “Spiritual” was the only word she saw fit to depict it. 

In the poem, “Field of Vision” Seamus Heaney depicts an old woman “who sat for years / In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead.” The poem shifts from the poet’s perspective to that of the old lady as the poet named the subjects of her penetrating gaze – the hawthorn bush, the small calves, the acre of ragwort, and the same mountain. 

In the poem there are two things to notice – the endurance of the lady as depicted through the stamina of her sight, and the frame through which she saw despite her physical inhibitions. In the last stanza of the poem, the poet reveals that the old lady’s vision extends “deeper into the country than you expected / And discovered that the field behind the hedge / Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing / Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.” 

The poet in the final stanza realizes that a wider field of vision is related to the ability to look into the country, beyond expectation; that the very things which barred her vision allowed her to see beyond. 

In a transitional shift, the poet sees the seer as the seer, himself. The significance of this, like the significance of seeing someone seeing, is that there is a duality to the contact of eyes. 

We perceive and take in that which we see, picking up on the subtle cues and animation of the eyes that often reflects the individual’s internal state. We also are able to gain perspective through looking at someone’s eyes. 

To “see” into the eyes of another is to peer into their soul: “Eyes are the window of the soul.” Like the trees which barred and yet also allowed the old woman to stare at the field and the land beyond the trees, we may peer into another’s eyes and see beyond them. It is what I saw at the Saloon. It is what Seamus Heaney saw in the old woman, and it is what you can see in others if you attend to their soul through the gift of seeing. 


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