We are slowly growing accustomed to the fine art of engaging in the unnatural art of masked conversations. On Friday, our Premier expanded the mandate for mask-wearing. A year ago, who would have imagined two persons routinely chatting together, hidden behind individually-fashioned, colourful pieces of fabric held in place by elasticized strings stretching behind the ears? At least we have moved beyond those bland, generic papery masks that were our protective first response to the pandemic.
One of the many adjustments to COVD-19 is the Provincial mandate to wear masks for most indoor interactions beyond the home bubble. Last week I paid a pastoral visit to an older woman who is battling a chronic progressive disease. She and her husband were waiting for me in their garden. Between her need to avoid the sun’s too-bright rays and a chilly Northern breeze, she wore a floppy hat, dark glasses, a bulky woolen coat and of course, her mask. Conversation started a bit awkwardly as we attempted to build a connection. Visually, there was nothing of her that was visible to connect us.
After a few moments, off came the glasses and I immediately found the woman I had travelled to see. I immediately thought of the old expression: “The eyes are the window to the soul.” In these difficult days, those “windows” are even more essential for effective communication.
The origin of that expression remains murky. The Roman philosopher, Cicero, gets initial credit as does Shakespeare, Wiliam Blake and Jesus. In Mathew 6: 22-23, he tells his followers: “the eyes are the lamp of the body.” From my high school science class, I learned that the pupil actually is an opening to the eye, much as an aperture is an opening to a camera. Both determine how much light is let in.
Can we really gain access to a person’s soul through peering into their eyes? Let us avoid the theological issue of “what is the soul?” and agree that what lies behind the eye is the inner life of an individual. Can the eyes really give us a peek at whatever emotion or thoughts reside within? Anyone interested enough to learn about Bob’s soul would immediately discern his squinting eyes. How to interpret this body language? Squinting can indicate anger or pain. But I am neither in pain nor hostile (at least on most good days.) In my case, scrunched eyes are related to slowly growing cataracts that are gradually conquering my clarity of vision. Increasingly, and even with glasses, words on the computer screen are becoming harder to read—so I squint—even when happy and pain-free.
Our pupils do widen in response to happiness, creating –“bright eyes” and they also dilate as a reaction to danger. Pupils will widen suddenly to provide more instant light, helping us to better discern the source of that danger. According to science, this is ”—a universal, adaptive reaction to environmental stimulae—.” (Science daily, Cornell University, March 20, 2014)
I have long been fascinated by tears. What is going on when “the window to the soul” begins to leak? Most of us have discovered unbidden tears rolling down our cheeks while peeling onions. Researchers have analysed chemical content of tears and discovered that this type of liquid discharge differs in chemical composition from tears of sadness. When we cry emotional tears, the body releases “excess stress hormones.” According to Derek Whitney, crying really does make us feel better (The Science of Tears, July 8, 2018)
Can eye colour reflect personality? Janet Jane Stokes (Your Tango) thinks it is possible although she admits her observations may be more for fun than for science. Naturally, I had to peek anyway! It seems that blue-eyed people like me are “peace lovers” and “expect commitment from friendships.” Could be worse, I suppose.
All this brings me back to masks. These days, we can no longer see the shy smile, the reddened cheeks of embarrassment, the anger of the clenched jaw, the pouty lips or other common body language. We have only the eyes with which to “read” one another. One blessed someday, we will throw away our masks. In the interim, each of us still requires the intimacy of relationships. We need to see eye to eye.