“Mill and seethe…mill and seethe…mill and seethe…and…SEEK CONNECTION!” the director claps her hands abruptly. “Now hold….keep holding. The person you are looking at. Walking wounded. Seen and loved. Imago Dei. Hold…and BREAK!”
We are in one of our final rehearsals for Godspell. The show goes up in a week and a half, and there is so much left to do. There is a set to be painted, choreography to learn, the final scene to block, and the harmonies are a mess. And instead of doing any of those things, we are warming up by walking aimlessly around the stage, and when Teresa tells us to, locking eyes with the nearest person, standing to face them, and holding eye contact. We do this over and over.
“Mill and seethe…and SEEK CONNECTION.” The person closest to me happens to be the lead of the play. I face him, our bodies only inches apart, and we make contact. His eyes are the darkest chocolate color, framed by black lashes. His face is beautiful and kind, and I feel safe, supported by him. We stare at each other, trusting one another not to break contact until the appointed time, not to falter. I used to squirm when I tried to hold another’s gaze, but that is a thing of the past. Now, I lean into the discomfort, knowing that there is something there for me.
“And…break!” Teresa claps her hands, and the stage full of frozen people suddenly comes to life. But in those frozen seconds, maybe for the first time, we saw one another.
Poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, “When we read Shakespeare or Chaucer, we find that the great source of power is in the eyes. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Portia says to Bassanio, “Beshrew your eyes, / They have o’erlooked and divided me…” She is not speaking of him as a seducer, because the same thing has just happened to him. “One half of me is yours,” she says, “The other half is yours.” This is happening because they have looked at each other. Their eyes have met with a certain complex understanding…the countenance involves the spirit, the soul. If you deal with people in terms that require you to meet their eyes, you are dealing with them as living souls, not just as bodies. Further, if you deal with them as living souls, you recognize instantly that certain things are demanded; for one, you must acknowledge them as people with lives, needs, problems.
Of course, if we can take the countenance out of it, we don’t have to take responsibility for the complexity of the encounter.”
In The Brothers Karamazov, there is manifold buffoonery. Fyodor, the father, is a drunk and a fool. Dmitri, the eldest son, is driven by his passions to violence and lust. And yet, in all their gallant, seemingly inane speeches, Alyosha, the youngest son, “studies them intently.”
Casey and I are in a practice room on the first floor of the music building. She’s the resident theater star and a good friend of mine, so I asked if she would help me prep for my Godspell audition. Before I sing for her, she gives me an objective. “Wake me up. Get me excited.”
I sing the song for her with feeling. She looks at me. “That sounded great. But there was no connection. For the next 30 seconds, I just want you to look at me.”
I had never done this exercise before. Seven seconds pass. I break contact and look down. “I can’t,” I say, feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?”
“It’s too hard!”
I try again. This time, I hold her gaze for the entire 30 seconds.
“Now do that, and actually sing the song to me.”
It’s almost a year exactly since Godspell, and though we spent hours with the exercise, I still can’t get used to holding eye contact. The difference now is that I make a conscious effort to do so. I don’t know what exactly happens when we hold another’s gaze, but it seems to me to be a meeting of two souls. It is a recognition not just of another’s embodied existence, but of their immaterial existence.
It is to say, in a sense, “You are here, and I am here, and we are both immortal.” It is a vulnerable, intimate thing. The time that I spend holding another’s gaze is perhaps the only time that I get a glimpse of their holistic self – I recognize the other in all their brokenness, glory, and utter humanity. It is akin to watching someone cry, or listening to another’s secret past, or hearing them speak of their deep fears. It is to know someone, to see someone.
In this world of broken, shattered things, of mistakes and cripples all of us, perhaps the way to begin is to reach with our eyes, to seek connection.