I have seen the look before. The eyes gave it away. Intense. Piercing. Resolved. Searching. Like a ray of light into the foggy twilight, you could see the light beam across the meadow. It moved with a deliberate and steady motion. Penetrating, like an MRI that was “thin-slicing” all that it landed on. Now it had landed upon me. It was probing for the flaw. The telltale sign of perfidy and malicious intent to harm. The reason to resist. I have seen this happen before. The dissonance of fear and desire. Hope and the trepidation that there might be a mistake. This is how the wound was inflicted last time, and the resolve to not let it happen again. The determination to be a better judge this time.
I know this gaze because I have used this gaze. Often. OK, to be clear, constantly…. There is an attentiveness to the vigilance. A high level of discipline in the use and the application of the dye that will reveal the microscopic cracks that expose the danger of the coming failure to perform. The vessel of hope breaks and anticipation oozes forth. Trust runs out onto the table and all that is remaining is a mess. Embarrassment and self-recrimination at being vulnerable, yet again…. You play the tape of the lie and you reaffirm the reasons that you refuse to extend the trust to tell the story. You change the opacity of the thing to snowy creamy white, and crawl behind the protections of the glass house of the hidden but protected you.
In an odd way it is the little bit of clarity that lends hope to the enquirer. One tidbit of vulnerability that gives the questioner a bone to chew on. They may even know that it was only a tidbit and not the entire story, but they relish that you have revealed even this small nugget. You know that it was a throw away bit, a token you suppose they may not have known. Inside it is but a small outpost on a large iceberg of “other” information, and they are unaware of the “more”.
I know this gaze, for many have looked at me this way. Usually it as a response to a question I have posed that penetrated a spot they didn’t know that I could see. It is oddly common, really. The question asked with a freedom and a willingness to be rejected and told to stay away. Sometimes firmly… sometimes not. When they have looked into me, seeking a place to trust and to tell, they see through me. The opacity level of guile is missing somehow, and I am just there to listen. It is, at times, off-putting. Meaning that they were not expecting the enquiry and certainly not expecting someone to listen. The curious thing is that their story wanted out, and they somehow knew that, but there had not been a place to tell the story. There had not been a listener of value. Someone, hopefully, that would be worthy of their trust, and their vulnerability.
One guy was a shoe shine man. I was in New York at a hotel for a meeting and I was a bit early, and he was there at the edge of the elevator. The question was simple but complex and spoken with a degree of respect that was the key that caused the disturbance; “I bet you have seen some characters as you do this job.” That was it, and then the gaze. Head to shoe and back again. I got my story out of him. He told of the 50 years that he had been doing this, his lawyer and accountant and 30 employees and doing arrogant business people and getting a contract at the airport. He then told of getting a contract to do weddings… “What?” said I. He says that “folks get all dressed up to go to the wedding but don’t polish their shoes. So, we set up a couple chairs for a set time and finish the job and go away. Then we send them a bill…”. The story wanted out. I was safe. There was genuine interest in a man with a career of helping others to look and feel good, and he was glad I had asked. I was clear in my question and he was clear with his tale. Opacity was zero. He didn’t tell everything. He was not vulnerable about messy things. The story was far from complete, but he told some of it to a stranger that listened without judgement, but with interest.
There are many of these, like the young guy with a tattoo of 3 stars on his arm that wants to be a “star” someday. The guy that was swabbing his boat in the Bahamas because it had a problem with exhaust that slimed up his boat when he was cruising to Miami. He was frustrated that it did this (his friend had bought the same boat the same day and his didn’t smoke) and the locals wanted $200 to swab it down in 20 minutes… Another penetrating look from head to toe, I was in flipflops, and there it was. A safe and respectful container to put his story, never to be seen again.
There is a crazy form of glass that you can put in your office or a window, that with a flip of a switch will turn the glass from clear to white. Instantly from approachable to closed off. The story is the same with us. Instantly. We do this. The story is trundling along and suddenly there was a corner and a switch, and a wall turns white. There is a reason, someplace, for this. Perhaps it was your brutish handling of a tender morsel only moments before. Perhaps it was the nearness of a painful memory best not exposed at this time. Perhaps it was a violation or the possibility of a future one. We have all done this. On both sides.
Opacity. At once a protector and a limiter of progress. You may be protecting a wound, but you are also kept from releasing the building reserves of the unresolved. And then there is a gaze from an unexpected source. I one time asked a Dr. if they thought that old people would come to see them simply because they were alone and craved a friendly touch. “Yes!” came out of her mouth with more exuberance than expected by her, or me... Then she regained her composure. We talked about the insurance or the other form of payment that covered the bill and they were so needing the assurance of a confidante and away they went, better. They had a clear window to see out of and had a hand on their shoulder or hands and with a degree of concern and tenderness that was so needed and received. Opacity was zero.
Many are wishing for a place to tell their story. There is a program that was started some time ago that is called “The Moth”. It is held at a theater or hall of some size and there is a theme for the evening, and people will spend 10-15 min telling of a story they have lived through or been a part of. They tell this to a group of people that have no connection except that they all know they have a story to tell, but they are too scared to get up and tell it. In an odd version of Karaoke, with no script for words, and no music but their rhythmic vocal tones they proceed to put their story, or at least one small part of it, into the ether, perhaps for the first time. They give a voice to the thing that wants told. In a way, the opacity of this is 100% white. The spotlight blinds them to the crowd and there is safety in blindness. They cannot do the gaze of trust. The listener is a crowd not an individual, so they are free. Perhaps for the first time in a very long time. This is the curiosity of opacity and the human mind. It is capable of telling the world but not a friend. There is little chance of judgement in a crowd, but that one individual I may see again, and that relationship means too much to be vulnerable.
Opacity is a spectrum, of course, but it is also three dimensional. The third dimension is depth. It is the texture of vulnerability. Width is the range of topics. Height is the intensity. But depth is the clarity of the thing. How vulnerable is an equation of these three, meaning which topic, how intense and how clear will I be. The missing part of the equation is the one that is listening. The funeral home worker, the neighbor, the clerk at the store, the strange little man that came in just before the store closed… all contribute to the mix. One last ingredient is the level of need to unpack. This alchemy is a mystery. That on a day that I walk in and you start telling the story that needs telling, is an act of serendipity for most people. For others, I have simply failed to even listen to the beginning and walked off, a cold and distant opportunity lost.
The reality of this is that it is a recipe that when baked in the oven of the trusted listener releases an aroma that fills the room. When you were young, and your bike wreck sent you to the one that would listen it might have been your sibling, but it was always better to go to your grandmother, who would withhold the snickers long enough to get the washcloth and the bandage. Patching you back together she would send you along. You might have gotten a new respect for gravity, but you also got the assurance and affirmation of a loving soul. This is what people are yearning for. It is the reason for the gaze. It is the admixture of the fear and the hope and the history of trusts betrayed all mixed with desire to form a decision of action. To move forward or to set it down and wait for another.
It is the gaze that you use. It is the gaze of the one that looks at you. You are but one on this land of needy souls, but you are one. You can do the part of the listener. You can fail and try again. You can trust incorrectly but do try. The tale wants to be told. You might be surprised. There is a place, a time, and a friend or perhaps a stranger with a penetrating question. Sometimes the one that will gaze will see the one place you thought was hidden. Kenny Rogers had a song with the line, “I can see you’re out of Aces. For a drink of your whiskey I will give you some advice.” There might not be as much opacity as you think, hiding your wounds. There are those that can see, at least that there is a wound. They may not know all, but they know enough. They have the gaze that penetrates. Will you let the story be told? Will you listen? Perhaps this time?
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