Two months ago, I relocated to Georgia–one of those southern states where it’s easy to be the new person among strangers, where most everybody greets you with warm eye contact and a smile when passing.
That is…until a month later, when this pandemic began impacting our lives, and it seemed like every day things got a lot more serious…and a lot less friendly.
It was a Tuesday morning in mid-March, and I went to my neighborhood Super Target to get groceries. I noticed a marked difference with most everyone I walked past….both shoppers as well as employees. I kept social distance, but initiated eye contact. However, very few met my gaze. Instead, they stared straight ahead, as if I was invisible. It was as if the world had changed overnight; and indeed it had. Only two people returned eye contact with me that morning, and as a result, I smiled with an expression of compassion. They smiled back. No words needed to be said, it was just a mutual understanding that ‘we’re in this together’.
I returned home telling my husband about it, perplexed as to how this pandemic could result in diminished eye contact and smiles with strangers. We even kidded about it saying, “Are people afraid they could catch it just by looking at someone?”
Fast forward two weeks later, when the CDC announced their recommendation for wearing face masks, while at the same time, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing in certain parts of the nation. That afternoon I ventured out to a supermarket without a mask, only to see 50% of the people in the store wearing a mask, which caused me to feel vulnerable. As I combed the isles for groceries, I found myself feeling anxious, wanting to get in and out of the store as fast as possible. As I passed others in isles, I avoided all contact…including eye contact. Why was I doing the very thing I couldn’t understand in others just two weeks before? I did it because I felt anxious. I felt like I was at risk. When I thought about it, I realized I was focused on ME, and the last thing I cared about was connecting with others. It wasn’t until I saw a man on a nearby isle by himself, holding a bouquet of flowers and a box of medication. It was obvious that he was there for someone else. I realized at that moment that everyone in that store had their own unique story. Some were shopping for sick family members, some were perhaps sick themselves, some were scared, some were overwhelmed with the current events, some had just lost their business or their job. And although my natural tendency was only to think of myself, I realized that I could make a choice to be intentional. I could intentionally be less self-focused by practicing simple eye contact that communicates, “I see you during this difficult time.”
I now feel a nudging in my spirit to “be present” for the others whom I come in contact with, simply by initiating eye contact. It’s going to take intentionality on those days when I don’t feel like it, but I am reminded of the many people who are truly isolated because they live alone; and their current interaction with society may be only during trips to the grocery store. I also will remind myself that if they avoid meeting my gaze, it’s not that they are wanting to avoid me–rather it is probably about the many thoughts or worries going through their heads.
This is a trying time for all, and a scary time for many. And now that we have learned we’re to social distance for awhile, let’s not equate social distancing with failing to connect with those around us. And you can do that so easily without having to say a word.