Looking Inward

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Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry

2005 Web Report

On Serendip

Looking Inward

Crystal Reed

Part I. Observations
When talking to someone I never looked them in the eye. Up until perhaps high school, it was nearly impossible for me to look someone in the eye when I was speaking to them. I could look at their face, but never their eyes. Even if it was just a casual conversation with a friend, I never made that connection. If I managed to look at their eyes, I would always quickly look away. I can't remember any particularly traumatizing event that could have lead to this inability to stand on equal footing with my conversation partner. There is nothing in my childhood or my upbringing that should have produced such a result.

One specific incident sticks out in my mind as an example. When I was young, my parents used to take me to a small local Halloween carnival. I remember once seeing a somewhat challenging game and wishing to try it. The game required that you stand outside a designated circle and use a string with a plastic ring on the end tied to a stick to try and stand up a long necked bottle that was lying on its side. The older boy that was running the game told me the instructions and handed me a stick. Soon after I began to play, he left his post to go greet a newly arrived friend. By the time he returned, and after several attempts, I had succeeded in standing the bottle up. He pretended to suspect me of cheating and jokingly accused me. He told me to look him in the eye and tell him that I had done it all by myself, and then he would believe me and surrender a prize. The jest was obvious, I knew he didn't really think I was a cheater. Nonetheless, I couldn't look him in the eye. I could be patient and persistent and stand up a glass bottle, but I could not look someone in the eye and tell him that I had done it.

This issue was a problem with me no matter who I spoke to or what the topic was. The majority of the time I hardly noticed that I was not looking someone in the eye. The only time I would realize it was when they would try to look me in the eye. The situation didn't matter, my response was always the same look away. However, I know this behavior was more than just a habit.

I remember that constantly in the back of my mind there was the statement "the eyes are the windows to the soul." It would flash through my mind whenever someone attempted to look me in the eye, or I came to a situation when it seemed that I should be doing that. I have no answers to my own questions about how that statement got there, where I first heard it, or why it affected me so deeply.

Part II. Conclusion
It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul. If this is true, then there are some people more willing to share themselves with the world than others. Eye-contact during a conversation forms a connection between two people, like a wire between two computers that shares data. Through this connection, one person is able to see into the soul or mind of the other. However, they must pay the toll giving the other person that same insight into them. It is only recently that I have begun to share data through these means. Up until just several years ago, it seemed impossible for me to look someone in the eye as I spoke to them. The tacit understanding of that information exchange, paired with my own buried insecurities resulted in my habitual behavior of avoiding eye contact. I do not know where this inhibition came from, but I am beginning to understand what it has meant in my relationships with other people. While I would not have minded a glimpse into another person's soul, I did not want anyone to be able to see into my own.

As the years went by, my mind developed methods, such as looking at a spot on the other person's face, that allowed me to forget that I was not looking him or her in the eyes. After a certain point, I only began to notice that I never looked someone in the eye when they had tried to look into mine. Whenever this occurred, I felt uncomfortable, as though someone were watching me in an otherwise empty room. If I happened to look at someone's eyes while I spoke to them, my reaction was always to avert my eyes. Never was it a conscious decision to look away. It was as if while their eyes were moving towards mine, there was a solid rod attaching my eyes to theirs, moving my eyes away simultaneously. Some magnetic repulsion forbade my eyes to meet those of my conversation partner.

No matter how many times my parents told me that I had pretty eyes, I did not want to let anyone see them; or more precisely, the soul behind them. I was not confident in myself, and did not want anyone to see my short-comings or potential down-falls. I did not think of the good possibilities of such a connection, I was only able to see the negative. Not yet comfortable with myself, I did not want anyone to see something that they may not like. Also, having had my trust somewhat shaken in middle school, I often did not want people to see when I was hurt, unhappy, or in any way not at my full strength. These insecurities were locked in the back of my mind. While I was aware that I was not a secure person, I did not realize that it was expressed through my actions to such a great degree.

I do not remember first hearing the statement that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but it has stuck with me more than any other statement of the kind. The phrase echoed uninvited through my mind whenever I noticed someone's eyes on me. In a way, I suppose the statement itself became tacit knowledge. It governed my actions without the approval of my conscious mind. That phrase being embedded in my mind created an instinct-like reaction. I do not think that it is human instinct to avoid eye contact. That trait is often one used to identify suspicious or somehow disconcerting people. However, in me, that reaction occurred so quickly and without thought that it seemed similar to instinct. The only thought that would accompany it or follow it, was the phrase 'the eyes are the windows to the soul.' It flashed through before I knew what I was doing, leading me to believe that the concept had become tacit knowledge for me.

This tacit knowledge and the behavior that it had caused often surfaced as obstacles in my relationships and interactions with other people. They noticed much quicker than I did and sometimes took offence. It was only after my actions were brought to my attention several times that I decided to try to change it. My eyes still have the urge to move out of line, but now that I am more conscious of it I am able to hold them in place. From my experience I have learned that you can make a conscious choice whether or not to obey the commands of your tacit knowledge. But this is only after you have been made fully aware of it and keep it in the forefront of your mind. The tacit knowledge has not been removed, perhaps altered, but not removed. I am more secure now, but the phrase still runs through my mind and I have to make a conscious choice not to avert my eyes.

Behaviors are not random, they are governed by thoughts or understandings that exist below the surface of the conscious mind. A repeating phrase and my self-image caused a behavior pattern to form and begin to run without my notice. While I knew those thoughts existed, I did not realize that they had manifested themselves in my actions. It was only after a great effort that I was able to bring the workings of my behavior up to the conscious level and to change them. The tacit knowledge that 'the eyes are the windows to the soul', and the urge to hide myself caused me to not look people in the eye. The searching out of that tacit knowledge with my conscious mind allowed me to change how it affected me, but not remove it from my thought structure.

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