Don’t waste your gift of sight for just looking at your phone. 

At a recent show, a comic’s joke that he liked panhandlers who ask him for money because they are the only ones who “look” at him, and make him feel visible, barely elicited a laugh. But it got me thinking about the statement’s profoundness. We have become experts at looking through people, averting our eyes, and looking at our phones – anything to avoid making eye contact with strangers. On a recent flight, my co-passenger didn’t as much raise his eyes as I squeezed past him; another looked through me as I tried to catch her eye. Jaded by these experiences, I averted my eyes when a gentleman on the train smiled warmly at me from behind his mask. Unfortunately, by the time I decided to smile back, he had rightfully withdrawn: a potentially beautiful moment was lost forever.

It is our innate desire to be seen, yet we actively resist and deny ourselves and others that impulse. We waste so many opportunities in elevators, public spaces, and coffee shops. A smiling stranger is a messiah these days. Not surprising that older women, who are more likely to be rendered invisible by society, are overwhelmed with even a tiny sliver of attention. Like Doris, whom Sally Field so brilliantly portrayed in Hello, my name is Doris. I recall a news blurb about a construction worker who got into trouble with the cops for catcalling women, arguing he was doing it intentionally as a service to boost older women’s self-esteem. I suspect that’s not entirely BS.

Human nature is rife with paradoxes. We want to see and be seen yet shy away from acknowledging it. And we have our biggest ally, our phones, helping us deal with this paradox by urging us to take the path of least resistance: looking down at the screen. The Stoics say we cannot control what others do, but we can control our actions. Choose to “see” people and look them in the eye with warmth. As the movie Lady Bird so eloquently put it, is not paying attention the best indicator of love? Why not express our love for humanity? 

Thankfully, many places still abound with attentive people. For example, I suspect one of the reasons people flock to Trader Joe’s is that the cashiers are genuinely attentive to you, even on the busiest days. Recently at Newark Airport, a greeter painstakingly greeted every passenger. It was probably an overkill, but his sincerity was so disarming that even reticent passengers politely told him they did not need help and thanked him. And then are places that take it even one step further, like Hackensack Hospital. As you walk along its long corridors, even the slightest frown on your face has an attentive staff or employee appear like a genie to ask if you need help. You feel valued and human in these places. 

Let us make eye contact, the world’s most popular contact sport.

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