The eye contact is what I remember most. It was just past noon on September 11, 2001. The skies were eerily silent. There were no planes or helicopter blades churning the air. Schools were locked down. Even the birds were quiet. I couldn’t work. I had to get out. My eyes and mouth agape, I walked through town, looking skyward, toward the Hudson River and the smoke over Manhattan.
Dazed and speechless, I didn’t want to chat, but I craved human contact. I needed to feel connected to others whose world had suddenly exploded. The streets were full of people wandering and weeping, and I experienced myself looking into their eyes, whether I knew them or not, and them looking back. We all seemed to be slowing down long enough to make eye contact, as if to acknowledge the shock and pain that bound us. In doing so, as many of would later recall, we found comfort.
We’re taught young, especially if we’re female, to protect ourselves by avoiding eye contact with people we don’t know. When passing strangers, we learn to look down, at the ground, our feet, our phones.
Self-protection has its place, yet, there’s a fine line between self-protection and alienation; between alienation and paranoia.
It’s impossible not to feel paranoid with folks walking around in surgical masks, inching to the far side of sidewalks and paths to avoid inhaling each other’s air. Although social distancing is critical to stifling the spread of Covid-19, it threatens to fray our social fabric.
One recent chilly day, I took my healthy self on a walk through the woods, stretching my turtleneck over my face for warmth. Despite my efforts to elicit eye contact and convey friendliness, people took giant steps away from me, probably misreading my raised collar as a sign of infection. The reaction, however understandable, stung. And it continues. Even on the warmest and sunniest days, and from six feet away, people avert their eyes, as if just looking at me will kill them.
Social fear is a slippery slope. We can stay safely apart without treating every stranger as a toxic enemy. We’ve had enough of that in this country already.
This is a time for social distancing, not fracturing. We cannot high five or hug, but we can exchange warm glances and smile. Everyone is frustrated and afraid; we gain nothing by pretending otherwise. In fact, revealing our shared vulnerability affirms our collective humanity. Everyone needs extra kindness right now. Let’s use our masks to prevent contagion not connection. Let’s take every opportunity to look into each other’s eyes, so that we don’t feel so alone.