The eye is an amazing organ, so intricate and delicate, a gateway to infinite realms of knowledge, of the continuous span of the present. Like a high speed camera, its shutter opens and closes hundreds of times a minute, capturing millions and millions of images of our world.
There’s something even more unique about the eye than its functions, a feat in themselves. The eye only sees truth. What our brain may do to the images it receives is another story; but the eye itself is simply the medium through which truth is expressed. As humans we have a tendency to deny, reject, distort when we see what we don’t want to see; the eye, however, does not lie.
When I was younger, I was terrified of looking people in the eye. Always a keen observer, I was constantly watching wherever I went: how one lady so meticulously examined her fruit at the grocery store before gently placing it in her basket; how the moon’s craters undeniably seemed to smile at me when I squinted my eyes and slightly tilted my head to the left; how incredibly hypnotizing a hamster’s wheel is when it’s spinning rapidly, rapidly, non-stop. Observing was how I learned. However, my preference was always to watch through a two-way mirror; that way, I could look all I wanted but no one could ever see me. Whenever people would catch me staring and our eyes would meet, I’d immediately tear my eyes away, as if guilty of some horrendous crime. This unfortunate habit continued endlessly as I got older. Even when I wanted to make eye contact, my eyes would break away the second our gazes met, like an uncontrollable reflex.
Still, although an inconvenience at times, the lack of eye-contact had not been a major issue; it wasn’t until my trip to the Bronx Zoo that I realized what I was missing by being unable to connect with others eye to eye.
“Mom, can we go see the gorillas next?” I asked late in the afternoon, tucking my map under my arm. A whine erupted from my little sister and my mother sighed. “All right,” she conceded reluctantly. “But this is the last one.”
Leading my weary family, I bounded over to the gorilla exhibit with my souvenir snake around my neck and a grin upon my face.
Eyes wide, I found my way through the crowds to the window. I slowly scanned the enclosure, hypnotized by their awkward gracefulness. It was amazing how human-like their actions were: mischievous young males wrestling, a protective mother shielding her newborn from prying eyes. As I began to focus on the scene in front of me, two antsy gorillas showing off for their audience, something in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Sitting erect with his head held high, his chest protruding with pride, was the largest of them all, their leader. His silver hairs of wisdom winked in the sunshine and there was such an aura of grandeur encompassing him – even through the glass I could sense it. At first looking towards the energized young ones, he then turned his head until he was looking straight at me.
His eyes were pure liquid black, like onyx. They glistened in the sunlight and as I gazed into them, mystified, they continued to gaze back at me. It was as if there was a surge of energy between us, a cyclical flow of sudden understanding, penetrating all barriers – language, species, and glass. Noises faded into the background, time slowed to a crawl as we both paused, captivated by what we saw.
It was at that moment that I truly realized that animals have souls. That day serendipity offered me a glimpse into the window of another world entirely foreign to me, and it has forever changed the way I view this universe. All of those days, months, years of me avoiding eye contact like the plague impeded my discovery of this single principle: the eyes are the window to the soul. Detached gazing can only get you so far. I had been looking and looking, but I was never truly seeing anything.
But those eyes. Those beautiful, haunting, shiny black eyes. They are indelibly etched in my mind, a constant reminder the deception of a beastly exterior. The only true image of one’s self is cast just beyond his eyes, for anyone to see, if only they care enough to look.
I believe in looking people in the eye. Misjudgments and ignorance come from a lack of depth in our observations. When time is short and you’ve got to catch the train in three minutes, the “slow” driver in front of you who is actually following the speed limit isn’t a cautious driver; he’s stupid, he’s an idiot, insert any expletive here. If everyone just paused for once, found a few seconds out of their busy schedules to look, really look in someone’s eyes, experiencing empathy would be impossible to avoid. There’s another side to every story. It may seem invisible at first, but if you take the time to look, it’s always there, staring right back at you.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.