The Healing Gaze
Updated: Jul 1
Submitted by Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
I have always been fascinated with the thought that hundreds of years from now, as people look back in time, they will place all of us who are living here today into a single category on the spanning timeline of human history. As a collective we will represent an era in time, so no matter how much variance there is between us now, or how separated, or different, or opposed we are to one another, we will ultimately be understood as an entity. So, what do you think our future humans will say of us when they look back to this point in history? Who are we as a collective whole living in this time on this earth, right here, right now?
The collision of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the George Floyd murder will forever mark this period of time in our country’s history. A lot is being demanded of us and emotions are surging in every possible direction. The uncertainty of this time will undoubtedly bring about sadness, grief, anxiety, a sense of helplessness, possibly even the occasional sense of detachment from oneself and/or the world, and let’s face it, anger. In this time, it’s tempting to become deeply invested in opinions and debate opposing points of view. Perhaps it even feels good to cast your personal evaluations off as aspersions toward another; a much-needed release of some kind. However, such intellectual exercises of debate and critique (otherwise known as a defense mechanism) are intended to keep one from having to go deeper into places of vulnerability. Words are an operation of the mind, they run through a series of cognitive filters, they have aim and intention- mostly the intention to protect or inflate the speaker. They can also fill up the necessary space where true listening can occur. Sitting with uncomfortable emotions though, that is something far more difficult. Looking another person in the eyes and holding their gaze, seeing into the depths of their pain, much riskier still. Words are easy, practicing active listening and human compassion- that takes real work.
There is an exercise commonly done in meditation practices where two strangers stare into one another’s eyes for a good minute or more. This does not sound like a long duration but I
promise you it becomes painfully long almost immediately. Neither stranger turning away; committed to holding the gaze of the other. No agendas, no words exchanged, just two strangers looking into one another’s eyes. What happens in this type of contact is truly transformative. In just a few minutes this person no longer seems to be a stranger and yet nothing at all is known of the other. In order to hold the gaze of another like this you must leave yourself in part, stuffing your own ego back behind the rafters as you step into the frame of the other. Then and only then are we capable of hearing from a place of openness, and then and only then, are we worthy enough to receive what is being said.
My mind drifts to the eyes of the people marching in our town’s Black Lives Matter demonstration. With the mouths covered by masks, the eyes became so clear, so penetrating and it became impossible to deny our human connection and my human responsibility. Being a white person at this BLM demonstration, bending down on the sidelines to show my active support, while wearing a blue medical mask, represented (for me) that it was time to shed this sickness. It is time for me to stop talking and start listening. In this one action, my historical silence shifted from a state of blind-numbness to a state of active listening. Being at this demonstration with my young children meant something even more. It meant that I am now recognizing the moral obligation I have to teach my children the truth about the world we live in.
Which brings me to my next point, we need to tell the children (all children!) the truth. Our history of teaching from two very different curricula needs to stop. We have those curricula that are taught in urban schools, which represent more BIPOC and those curricula that are taught in predominantly white suburban schools. Yes, these white suburban schools have begun to embrace diversity and claim to love and honor all people but they also continue to teach the same damn thing that I learned, SILENCE. Let me ask you, did your child’s teacher discuss the murder of George Floyd and place this discussion in the broader context of historical and modern-day systemic racism? Did the teacher discuss the BLM demonstrations happening in our very own town, as well as around the entire country and explore the meaning behind them? If the answer is no, or if it’s yes in some classes but no in others, then we have a very big problem here in our town. As parents, we need to hold our school system accountable to ensure that our children are receiving a proper education that is based in the whole truth. An education that teaches racial literacy (not simply cultural sensitivity), and instructs from a historical perspective that does not omit facts and deny accountability. Not to mention, informing our children how to become politically engaged citizens in our very own country.
And so, I have begun to hold myself accountable here and finally had the first talk with my 5- year-old son. To be truthful, I had a lot of hesitation in introducing “the subject:” slavery, racial discrimination, social injustice, murder, abuse of power. Where do I begin??? How do I begin??? The pandemic has already been so scary, such an interruption to life as he knows it. The truth is so ugly. How do I tell him humans are like this??? I do not want to injure him. But I recognize that to shield him from the truth is a darker kind of ugliness. It will make him complicit in the ongoing abuse, it will not prepare him for the world as it really is, it will not nurture inside of him a true love for all humans, it will rob him of the beauty inherent in children who have the capacity to see beauty in all things living and to love from an immeasurable depth. Then I think to how black parents have no choice in teaching their children the ugly truth. It’s what they have to do in order to ensure their children’s survival. I am not okay with this duality, and nor should any of us be.
No doubt, there are still many people who just want to go back to the lives they were leading before they knew the names of George Floyd and COVID-19. I imagine they will tell themselves that they will be more appreciative of one another, more sensitive to racial injustices and more attuned to all human life. But unless you dive down into the depths of your soul and find where it hurts, find where it’s dark and scary and doesn’t make sense, find the place where the world as you know it disappears, nothing at all will change. For change takes a total disruption of self, a total dismantling of defenses, a relinquishing of your side of things as you see it, and an opening towards that which is completely new and unfamiliar. Our feelings of discomfort (yes, I’m speaking to other white people here) do not measure up to the fear, to the trauma and shame and terror that black people have lived with for 400 years. Our apprehensions for speaking up, our defensiveness around word choices (making sure the delivery is perfect to our liking, like a delicious palatable dessert) is a thick coating of self-deception. Telling yourself, if I don’t like the sound of this then I don’t need to listen. Or if I don’t like the sound of this then I will shut it down with other actions (or “activism”) to cloud what’s being said. Ask yourselves,truly, why does it make you shutter to hear these words: “Black Lives Matter”? I am asking you to sit with that, not to react, just to sit with that for a while. This is something that needs a lot of unpacking and it’s our white inheritance that has to be sorted through here.
The timing of these two catastrophic events and how we respond to them will forever define our country within this pivotal time of history. We can either dig our heels in, grasping desperately for the old familiar feeling of what life was like before our active awareness of these pandemics, or we can make a deliberate shift here, and pivot with the current momentum of change, to find out who we want to be now. The latter is our moral obligation. The latter is how I hope we will be remembered by those that proceed us. The latter becomes possible only when those that are used to being heard turn and silently hold the gaze of another, with openness and readiness to receive what is being said.
When a Stranger Comes to Call
It’s like visiting the house at the end of nowhere and finding a familiar stranger inside whom you neither like nor want to know, and your paths are somehow knowingly intertwined but not in any way you can remember.
I tell you, it’s as equally terrifying as it is necessary to sit down next to this stranger… and wait till the stranger is no longer strange but known. Notice here, I didn’t say “liked,” just “known.”
After this encounter everything will feel strange and everything unknown. This is the place from where you are ready to begin… Or, you can just go back to the way things were before.
I will admit, the path of least resistance is much easier than the aforementioned. To just sit back down in your reclining chair and drift off to sleep once more.
Your choice here…or maybe not anymore.