In August we traveled to Pennsylvania to meet our new niece, Naomi Renee. I cannot imagine a happier little being. And why not? She was born into a family where love is palpable. Her parents delight in her. Her three siblings vie for turns holding her. She is seen and she is loved.
We come into the world needing others to care for us. Without nurturance, we simply don’t survive. To thrive, we need someone (if we’re as fortunate as Naomi, multiple someones) to lavish us with compassionate attention. You know if you’ve been granted this kind of love: it oxygenates the soul. In the presence of such love, we feel safe. We feel seen.
The need to be seen follows us into adulthood. A decade ago I spent lots of time at Beverly’s Atomic Café. I gazed gladly at the world and the world gazed back at me. I delighted in conversations with friends and strangers; often the strangers became friends.
A woman who lived down the street introduced herself at the café counter one day. “We call you the happy biker,” she said. That was me. I loved riding my bike as much as I loved sipping tea at the Atomic. I loved being a little spark of gladness cruising down Cabot Street. I felt seen.
I remember one day gliding my bike down Cabot, taking in the faces I passed by. Out of the blue sky a startling thought flashed into my mind: I want to admire more than I want to be admired. I want to see more than I want to be seen.
The realization was a seed that had been in my soul all along. Ever since that day, it has been sending up shoots and stalks; rooting itself into the soil of my being.
Lately I recognize that I cannot force others to see me as I’d like them to. I directed a summer camp in July and August, and the work involved leading 30+ counselors aged 16-23. It became clear that several of them didn’t like me. The efforts I made to win them over fell flat. I felt waves of indignation, sorrow, and shame over the course of the summer. All I could do was try to see them despite the walls they’d erected between us.
That’s the thing. No matter how someone else looks at me, I have the power to look at others – to look at the world – with love, curiosity, and awe. I still love to sit in coffee shops and gaze at the beautiful ordinariness before me, from sunlight on chairs to the comings and goings of strangers.
Sometimes a sight captures me and I remember it for years to come. Five years ago a hand stretched over the headrest in front of me on a plane. Who was the being on the other side of that seat? How easy it would have been to touch this hand, and yet I wouldn’t dream of doing so. I felt strangely moved that this person would entrust his/her hand to me, a perfect stranger s/he hadn’t even seen. That sense of proximity and vulnerability lingers still. I can’t possibly capture the luminosity of that moment, but the photograph serves as a reminder.
Though the greatest power comes in learning to see, I think I’ll always depend upon friends who offer me compassionate and robust attention. In the two days I spent writing this blog (which, I’ll confess, was in early September), I happened to sit down with two different friends who regard me with insight and care.
Peter listened to my recent journeying and told me, “You’re not squashing yourself anymore.”
Linda listened kindly to my musings on whether or not to wax my upper lip (should I do this? should I not? am I vain? is it ridiculous to be so self-conscious? if the smattering of darkish lip hairs sometimes bothers me, maybe I should just spend the $10 instead of hemming and hawing? or maybe in so doing I’d be succumbing to a ridiculous misogynist beauty standard? … clearly I could write a blog entry on this topic but who would care to read it?). Linda smiled and said, “I think you couldn’t be any more perfect, and I know you have your own path.” It was tongue-in-cheek and it was utterly sincere. I love this woman.
Spending time with those who really see me restores my soul. I see myself anew as I receive their gaze.
More and more I aspire to offer such a gaze to everyone I meet. I pray the Celtic blessing:
…I watch for Your light, O God, in the eyes of every living creature
And in the ever-living flame of my own soul.
If the grace of seeing were mine this day
I would glimpse You in all that lives.
Grant me the grace of seeing this day.
Grant us the grace of seeing.