"Opia - n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable--their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque--as if you were peering through a keyhole in the door of a house, able to tell that there's someone standing there, but unable to tell if you're looking in or looking out." John Koenig.
I was sitting in therapy with my son last night and he was upset with me for, well, several reasons. Some legit, some not. But something he kept saying over and over again was that he wanted more eye contact from me. I found this to be a weird statement from a fifteen year old kid...
But he said it. Repeatedly.
So I went to bed last night thinking about it. Eye contact. It isn’t really contact at all. We do not touch with our eyes, that is left to other body parts. But we are touched with our eyes. We are grasped with a glance, held with a gaze. We can be completely captivated by a look from someone else, and held entranced by what we see. The eyes are the windows to the soul. I believe that. I know it is true because I can feel myself hide my eyes, avert them, look away from someone, because I do not want them to get in. I want them to turn away. I want them to not be there. Or more importantly, to not see into me. And apparently, my son also sees this...
I feel this more acutely as I age but less often. The feeling, when I have it, is almost at a panic level. Someone will wish to make eye contact in a meaningful way and I feel myself almost floating away. This strong desire to leave. This pull upwards and away. It is never for the same reason, and yet, it is never different either. I think I feel this way because I want to be unseen. I want to hide or remain more anonymous. I want to float away.
Sometimes, eye contact seems loving, other times, threatening. Regardless, how I react is really telling about where I am on the intimacy spectrum. If I can hold your gaze, I am comfortable, safe. I feel ok in my skin and you can walk in to my life and I am ok with that. Other times, often a few moments later, I am removed from that place of calm, peacefulness and I feel threatened. Sometimes it is something you do or say, other times it is just me needing to leave. It really has nothing to do with you. I need to retreat to a place where I am ok’er than I am with you standing there wanting something from me that I am not sure I have to give you. Those are hard moments for me: if I remain when I feel this way, I am not really there. I have already left which you can tell if you are paying attention. But we both continue the lie, which robs us both of any kind of intimate connection.
If I leave, well, I am gone. I am removed and intimacy dies as well. It has taken me a long time to realize that if I am to be truthful and willing to create a space of intimate connection, I have to tell you when I go, why I go and that I will be back when I feel safer. Hard stuff. Really.
Opia is coming to define for me that place where I am on the cusp. I am there while wanting to leave. That place where I can make another choice and tell you how I am feeling. That I am present but want to check out, break the eye contact, shrink away from you, even while I still remain.
Intimacy is hard. It is risky business. It takes heart, courage and a fearless spirit to remain and tell the truth. It is saying the thing instead of flitting away to the place where nothing really gets communicated and it doesn’t really matter. It takes a lot to be there and stay there and really occupy the glance, the stare, the held gaze. We speak a lot with our eyes, if we are paying attention to ourselves.
Perhaps all intimacy is communicated first through the eyes. Whether it is safe or unsafe, whether the person is willing or unwilling. This is where I think that animals might have a jump on us. They have and are still tethered to their more basic instincts and so have a better purchase on their instinctual desires. So much is communicated by a dog with its eyes: fear, trust, sadness, love, happiness. You can look into the eyes of a dog and you KNOW how it is feeling. No breach of truth there, the dog tells you everything with its eyes and it doesn’t seem to ever really feel the need to lie to us. Dogs don’t cover. They just show us how they are, where they are and they do it most affectively with their eyes.
As usual, I think we could learn a lot from a dog.
This concept of Opia, of seeing each other, I mean really looking at each other and being willing to see what is revealed as much as one is willing to see what is NOT revealed is something I want to talk more about, to feel more and to observe more, in myself and in others. Perhaps, one day, I might even have the courage to address when I see you leave, or when I feel myself leave. And talk about that...fuck, wouldn’t that be intimate?
For today, I will practice watching myself use words and glances elsewhere to leave the intimacy building. To vacate the premises of connection and flit away to safer ground. But I will try to examine why. Why am I leaving? Why do I suddenly feel unsafe? Does it originate in me? Or in you? Perhaps if I spend a little time figuring that out, I can do this intimacy thing better...if only, for now, with my eyes. And I am going to try, to give my son (my daughter too) more eye contact...should be interesting. Something I can so freely give, didn't know was really missing, and feel somewhat apprehensive about...once again, brought up short by these kids that I get to raise. My best teachers for sure...if only with their eyes.