On a recent trip home, as my mom gave me instructions for a round of chores, she kept accusing me of not paying attention. I was, of course, listening closely, but I was also looking at the chore in question, sizing it up. I’m a visual person – I don’t need a lot of explanation if you can let me look at the problem. But the problem was that I wasn’t looking at my mom. And she was interpreting that lack of contact as a lack of connection.
Sometimes you’re not supposed to look. I acted in a few student films this past month, and the impulse to look at the camera is real. It’s hovering right there in your face, restricting your movement, betraying the falseness of the scene, and it almost feels like you couldn’t be blamed for looking. But looking is the fastest way to ruin the moment, to pull the audience out.
Theatre is the same. It’s called “the fourth wall,” and it’s the idea that, no matter what happens onstage, no matter how much the audience laughs or cries or claps or reacts in any way, you ignore them, and you continue on. And it makes sense, because an audience can be unpredictable and you don’t want them to throw you off. But it also makes it a little lonely. I’ve been onstage for crowds of hundreds, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt truly overwhelmed. I wonder if that would change if I had the chance to look them all in the eyes.
But the thought stands. There are some things you’re not supposed to look at. We’ve spent thousands of years with mythologies of fear, beings like Medusa, the basilisk, the cockatrice. One look and you turn to stone, or worse. More recently I played a video game taken from the Slenderman mythos, featuring a tall, faceless figure who kills if you see him. As your character walks through a dark forest, a page has been nailed to a nearby tree. It reads: “don’t look or it takes you.” Ever since horror movies have existed there have been jump scares, murderers who wait in total silence, with knife poised, until the victim slowly looks their way. It is terrifying to die, but even more terrifying to turn around and find death staring at you. The look, the comprehension, the eye contact is so very, very crucial.
Avoidance doesn’t even need a thriller track. We do it every day. I talked about poverty a while ago, how we can give a begging person our coins but not our eyes. But it extends further. I’ve walked through entire cities without being able to smile at anyone because nobody was willing to look at a stranger. I wonder if it’s a crowd mentality, or a defensive tactic. If you look, you might open the door to something unwanted. Solicitation, aggression, irritation. It’s easier, it’s simpler, if you just keep walking, if you mind your own damn business. Keep your head down and worry about your world, not the world.
Like every other college, Concordia is always looking for a distinction, a way to stand out, a way to be unique. Sometimes these distinctions can seem contrived, sometimes they’re spot-on. I’m not an expert on any of that. But I have enjoyed my time at Concordia immensely, and it’s partially because of the programs but mostly because of the people. And it’s not because we’re all smarter or stronger or kinder or have prettier noses. It’s because when I look at Concordia, Concordia tends to look back.
Thanks to all who have read this column. Thanks to all who have looked me in the eyes these past four years. You own a snapshot of my story, and I own a snapshot of yours. We might lose those snapshots in the time to come, and that’s fine. But it’s my hope that we’ll all keep looking.
Thanks for your time. Thanks for your stories.
Thanks for the eye contact.