I took a long ride on the subway today. The opportunities for me to engage in my favorite sport – people-watching – were tremendous. But I got a little worried after a while when a few people began gazing back. Were they looking at me because I was looking so intently at them? Were they offended by my stare? Or was it something about me? Was it what I was wearing? What I was carrying? What I looked like? I began to think that maybe I should be checking my email after all.
Such anxious feelings are the risks of human contact – even the minimal human contact represented in a direct gaze. We begin to attribute motives to one another. Personally, I was fascinated with what I perceived to be the beauty of my fellow travelers. Within ten minutes of my entry on the train, I saw a tall man with wavy, chin-length hair and coffee-colored skin leaning exquisitely nonchalantly against his bike (which was, in turn, leaning nonchalantly against the wall of the train). I saw two beautifully-dressed African-American women who were clearly twins, sitting next to one another and displaying completely different facial expressions as they spoke on their separate cell phones. I saw a fashionably dressed blonde woman who was so tall that her head hit the top of the train. I saw a man with asymmetrical features that defied common ideas of attractiveness but whose sparkling brown eyes winked at me with enormously appealing humor and intelligence. I saw a young woman whose hair style – dyed-grey and worn long and straight – seemed to me to be a perfect cross of the hairstyles sported by a middle-aged mother and teenaged sister in the mid-1970s. It was a smorgasbord of vastly different but equally gorgeous humanity. I could have spent an hour simply considering why one of the twins has a scar over her left eyebrow while the other one doesn’t – that is until one of them looked up at me and frowned – and I began to wonder why she thought I was staring at her.
I think we’ve all had an experience of catching someone looking intently at us. Sometimes such moments bring about unparalleled joy – like the first time the person you like “in that way” looks at you as if s/he might like you that way too. But sometimes moments like that engender fear – like when you are the only person of color in a train full of white people who are returning from a rally in favor of denying rights to immigrants or when you are the only woman on a street when a frat party lets out. Usually such moments are neither intensely pleasurable nor paranoia-inducing – but they are generally thought-provoking. I wear a clerical collar when I go to work. It is my uniform, and like most of us who wear uniforms I often forget I have it on so I am surprised when I walk through a restaurant or a store and sense people looking at me. I find myself attempting to interpret any penetrating looks that come my way. After all, many people have strong reactions to seeing someone wearing a priest’s collar, especially if that someone is a woman. But it is extremely rare for someone to actually say anything to me.
I frequently wish they would – because I would love to know what they are thinking, and what they are feeling. I would love to talk to them about it. I would feel better if I could. It’s been my experience that when people speak to one another they find out that they have been attributing incredibly inaccurate motives to one another. Sometimes they are projecting their own feelings onto someone else. More often, I think, they are attributing socially-common or popularly-held beliefs to them. I once sat with a woman on the subway who kept sneaking glances at me under her eyelashes. Since I was wearing a clerical collar at the time I began to wonder if I should initiate some kind of conversation about religion or spirituality or something – but she beat me to the punch by finally coming out with what was on her mind: “Where,” she asked, “did you get those pants”?
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century spiritual guide, developed a series of Spiritual Exercises that continue to be practiced by members of The Society of Jesus (of which Pope Francis is one) and countless others. Ignatian spirituality emphasizes contemplation in action and the Spiritual Exercises are designed to help individuals discern and do God’s will in the world. One of the annotations in the Spiritual Exercises (22) is accompanied by the comment, “It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” Anthony Lusvardi suggests that this means we should, “Stay away from motives. If you find yourself attacking somebody’s motives, you are almost certainly violating Annotation 22. Attributing presumed motives to others shifts the discussion away from the issue and onto the person.” My experience on the subway (and other places) confirms the truth of this interpretation. Almost always, when we start guessing the motives of others, we’re wrong. More importantly, we seem to be far too eager to assign negative motivations to innocent actions. In other words, maybe that person staring at you on the subway is not questioning your faith or disapproving of your clothing or demonstrating hostility to your race, culture, gender, choice of partner, or behavior. Maybe they just find you interesting or charming or beautiful. Or maybe they’re just wondering where you got your pants. And maybe if we wondered about each other less and talked to each other more, we’d find out. Maybe we’d learn a little something – perhaps about fashion – or possibly about something significantly more important. You’ll never know unless you ask.
Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309.
Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, “Stay Away from Motives,” Whoever Desires blog, in Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309-310.