20 years ago, psychologist Arthur Aron discovered that 4 minutes of looking into another’s eyes can bring people closer. Just 4 minutes. It does not sound long. But it is a very challenging experience to hold, and be held, in the gaze of another. It is rare and powerful. Lovers know the power of a long gaze. Teachers use this power to a different effect.
Many people are starved of this kind of attention. They spend their lives outside of the sightline of those who pass by. When we refuse to catch their eye, we exercise an exclusionary power. It is as though by not seeing them they cease to exist in our world; a symbolic assassination. Today, there are whole communities of people we refuse to look in the eye. We speak about them in dehumanising language – as the ‘collateral damage’ of war, ‘floods’, ‘swarms’ and statistics. Have we considered how our attempt to diminish their humanity also profoundly reduces our own? Human suffering, even on a global scale, concerns real people, with loved ones, stories, and dreams. When you look into their eyes, you no longer see an anonymous refugee, or the pixilated image of a stranger, but a person, just like us.
With this in mind Amnesty International sponsored a series of simple experiments. Recently-arrived Syrian refugees sat opposite Europeans from the places they had settled and were simply instructed to look into each other’s eyes for just 4 minutes. The participants were ordinary people who saw each other for the first time during the experiment.
Watch the results here:
I take from this that the power of acknowledging another is profound. It reverses our inclination to protect ourselves from being moved by another’s plight. When we look the other in the eye, reciprocally we are acknowledging our shared humanity. But what of those whose suffering no-one sees? There is a moving story in the Old Testament of a run-away slave who had been used as a surrogate only to be thrown out into the desert when the family changed their mind. She wanders into the Negev hoping for death and an escape from her suffering. Instead she encounters God. She is the first person in the Bible to give God a name. She says she has met with ‘el-Roi’, the God who sees me. This gives her strength to continue on, eventually back to her homeland where she raises her son, Ishmael. Even those who are cruelly hidden from everyone’s sight have a God who sees them.
Let’s open our eyes to really see others today.