I randomly decided to look – really look – at people I passed by on my way into work yesterday. From the commuter train to the pedway to the CTA to the station to the block before our office building’s front door, I would try to catch eyes and smile at random people.
For many cultures – in East Asia and most Muslim countries – looking into the eyes of someone, especially someone of the opposite sex – is considered disrespectful or forward. But for me, I was hoping to acknowledge people who are often invisible: the lady beside me on the train, the security guard in the pedway, the ticket taker, the subway minstrel.
And then someone tripped me as we were getting on the subway. It was an accident as he was trying to sidestep a guy with a rolling suitcase. But I crashed to the ground – eyeglasses knocked off my head – and, of course, people stared. Two skinned knees but all was fine. Except for one thing:
The guy who accidentally knocked me down never looked at me. He never looked at me in the face, much less in the eyes. If he had to identify me five minutes after our little collision, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. Was she white? Black? Wearing a purple coat? Short? Old? Freckled? He wouldn’t have been able to say.
At the risk of creeping people out, I consider it a spiritual practice to look each other in the eye. It makes us real. It acknowledges people. We can even thank them with our eyes. It reminds us that we are all human beings with lives and stresses and work to do and people to love.