Eyes: the windows to our soul…and our survival?

This piece appeared in the Irish Examiner at some point in 2020. As restrictions return here in Australia (thankfully not in my current home of Queensland) now felt like a timely time to share here. Also, I’m lazy and forgot about it for approximately eight months. Enjoy!

In a world of less – less touching, smiling, hand-shaking, laughing, kissing, awkward pavement side-stepping that inevitably leads to colliding – everything means more. Even before the advent of facemasks, it was said that a person’s eyes were the windows to their soul. Now, in the same way a loss of one sense only serves to heighten the others, the eradication of all forms of nonverbal communication during this pandemic (and come to think of it verbal too for anyone who, like me, struggles to achieve coherency within the prison cell of a facemask) has lent our eyes new purpose. No longer are they merely the windows to our soul, they are the only remaining portal to human connection, the last bastion of individual expression and meaningful interaction. They are the solitary, untouched island to escape the colonisation of safety restrictions; the UNESCO-protected lagoons unpolluted by social distancing measures and societal judgement in which we can still swim, should the inclination or the stranger take us. 

And while I have always thought eye-contact to be something that helps us survive emotionally and spiritually, it is only recently I have learned that the simplest of eye movements – a wink, a glance around, even a glazed stare at a phone screen – might be the reason we have survived as a species too. 

Human eyes, proportionate to body size, are larger and longer than those of most apes and are the only eyes with a white – and therefore distinct – sclera. This stark differentiation between iris, pupil and sclera allows others to see where we are looking and thus, in showing other humans the direction of our gaze – and amplifying this information through our peepers’ attention-grabbing size – is a vital communication tool that reveals our deepest vulnerabilities, desires, and fears. Unusually, rather than camouflage, our eyes seek to communicate; they strive to cooperate instead of deceive. 

Today, to “see” is no longer a passive verb or automatic impulse, it is a charged and politicised action; an act of will, resistance, and activism.

The openness and honesty of our stare – looking towards a source of food without fear of it being stolen, eyeing a potential threat or danger without fear of it being manipulated to hurt us – is proof that humans are innately kind and trusting beings. More than this, this cooperative kindness is what has kept us alive when other, stronger, smarter species have perished. Our eyes, in the collaboration they invite and vulnerability they communicate, build trust, empathy and community amongst us, and it is these traits that have fortified and safeguarded us in what the writer and historian Rutger Bregman, terms ‘survival of the friendliest’. 

This theory remains every bit as true – and every bit as needed – in today’s society, albeit on a slightly less primordial level. In the supermarkets, on the streets, even during interminable Zoom meetings, it is the expressive and emotive honesty of meeting someone’s eyes that fortifies, sustains, and encourages me to persevere through the cooped-up claustrophobia of the pandemic. 

Because, as it is my fervent hope everyone reading this can attest, there is nothing so transformative, soul-filling, life-affirming, day-making, deliciously euphoric as catching another’s eye and, in their gaze, feeling seen. Of becoming instantly calm or euphorically giddy in the pull of someone’s stare. Of being held in another’s eyes, reborn in the pool of them; of finding yourself – as well as losing yourself – in their glance and that soothing A-ha moment, of ‘There you are. I’ve been looking for you’. Of simply feeling a part of something larger than yourself, experiencing that moment of homecoming, of belonging in the invisible nod, the unifying eye roll, the acknowledging blink that confirms your existence, your integral role as a unique thread in the tapestry of this vast and varying world.

However, beyond cooperation, kindness, or even flirtation, the striking visibility of our eyes – the ostentation of their size and colour – suggests another function: that of silent witness and social conscience. A study from UCLA found that feeling “watched” made people ostensibly kinder: participants who felt observed during the research period were prompted to be more generous with charity donations – even when observed by mere pictures of eyes on a computer screen. This implies that, in promoting and nourishing goodness, kindness, and altruism amongst humankind, the role and value of our eyes is not limited to that of mere communication tool: they are also a benevolent but menacing influencer at all levels of societal justice. They are, simultaneously, wide-eyed witness, prejudiced jury, and fearsome judge. Their darting presence in the world acts as a kind of ubiquitous law enforcement, silently corralling, prodding, and shaming us into being better humans, friends, citizens. 

It is our eyes and the selling and manipulating of their data that decides tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, presidential candidates, brand campaigns, Netflix commissions.

I find this revelation critical at a time when the world has never asked more from our eyes: when our news bulletins and newsfeeds are awash with the pleas of thousands begging for us to bear witness to their pain and suffering. Today, to “see” is no longer a passive verb or automatic impulse, it is a charged and politicised action; an act of will, resistance, and activism. We are being asked to testify: to uplift the persecuted, liberate the tortured, and honour the dead by affording them the dignity of being seen. Yet, as our eyes are being commandeered as witnesses for innocent victims, they are simultaneously being called upon as judges, prosecutors and agitators in an increasingly virulent cancel culture.  Online, our eyes are the adjudicators, the protesting masses, the potent jury: they decide the innocent and condemn the guilty. 

It is our eyes and the selling and manipulating of their data that decides tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, presidential candidates, brand campaigns, Netflix commissions. The length of time they hover over an image, headline, or article holds political and social currency, as algorithms toil endlessly to shape and sew our virtual world into a mosaic that refracts, reflects, and mirrors our innermost thoughts. George Floyd’s death and the subsequent resurgence of anti-racism protests it sparked worldwide is an example of this. His murder was by no means an anomaly, so what uplifted it from a short-lived outrage into a global outcry? It was not the loss of life alone that ignited such a potent response but rather the fact it was recorded: that we watched his death, and, in watching, committed our eyes to a pivotal act of civic and social responsibility that is still reverberating around the world today.

While George Floyd’s and, more recently, George Nkencho’s faces are ones we will never forget, many others are disappearing from sight altogether. The #IWantToSeeNyome campaign, set up by model Nyome Nicholas-Williams, activist Gina Martin, and photographer Alex Cameron, began when Instagram started systematically removing images of Nyome, a black, plus-size model, from its platform. Nyome’s body – like thousands of others – was erased from public view simply because it didn’t conform to a narrow societal ideal and, in this failure to comply, she disappeared from sight completely. With the watching eyes of the online community behind her as they assiduously shared her deleted images with the hashtag #IWanttoSeeNyome, Nyome’s campaign demonstrated the biased and unjust process of social media censorship that amplifies some voices and bodies while actively hiding and shadowing others.

By the end of October 2020, Nyome, Gina and Alex had not only had the images reinstated on Instagram, they had changed the platform’s nudity policy, making it less likely for this censorship of black and larger bodies to continue. Their hard-won victory is a cautionary tale and a battle cry for how we must “see” the change we want enacted in the world. How our eyes are tools of resistance and vehicles for activism and we must use them, today and always, to bear witness, to question, and to not solely express kindness but to demand it from the public at large. To isolate our collective and curated blind spots and shine our scleral light on them. 

In a time when we fear hands, hugs, lips, limbs, our eyes are the only body part we don’t need to fear: the windows that open to a world of comfort, solace, and security. Gazing into them is gazing into our own evolution, not as individuals but as a collective and cohesive whole, who collaborates instead of conquers, shares instead of takes. Now, more than ever, there is a lesson, there is power, there is hope in this. 

This, as Rutger Bregman posits, is what will sustain us, what will keep us alive and hopeful. It is not strength, brawn or brain: it is the reminder of kindness that our eyes alone can express. So, go on, open them.

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