Tag Archives: fear

Agony by Eye Contact

I have always been told that I have an eye contact problem.  When most people hear this, they assume that I mean how I have trouble maintaining eye contact.  However, my apparent problem is the exact opposite; I’m told that I make too much eye contact with people while speaking with them.

It is one complaint that has followed me all throughout my childhood (and subsequent adult years), by people alleging that I am not showing them proper respect because I insist on “staring” at them as we talk.  Yet, despite numerous attempts to remedy this supposed faux pas of mine, I have never really been able to figure out what the socially acceptable amount of eye contact is supposed to be.  Hence, what results is me trying to simultaneously give someone my complete attention, while worrying that I have given her/him too much attention, and made her/him feel uncomfortable because of it.

The reason I have always been inclined to make direct eye contact with whomever I happen to be speaking to at the moment, is my desire to hear and understand every word that is being spoken to me by said individual.  I make the assumption that if you find it worthwhile to approach me in conversation about a topic, you want me to actually listen to what you have to say, and not nod my head and shift my eyes aimlessly, looking for a distraction to avoid looking at your eyes.

The strangest part is that when I’m confronted about my intense eye contact habit, and told that I’m being rude to the person whose words I’m trying to hear, my sincere request to get some constructive feedback on the matter is always met with scorn.  “You should already know why it’s obviously wrong,” is the answer I usually get (which is obviously asinine since I obviously don’t know).  The second most common answer is that it makes the person I’m speaking to uncomfortable, which though reasonable, still doesn’t validate the notion that my behavior is wrong.

Breaking the routine of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder will definitely make the person afflicted with OCD uncomfortable, but doing so is a necessary step in getting the person to break away from her/his compulsion (assuming the person wants to break from it).  In that same regard, how can I be sure that it is not society’s aversion to eye contact that is the problem here?

I know from my experience teaching in a classroom that students who actually look at me as I’m lecturing tend to retain more information, than those who never lift their heads from the paper in front of them.  This is because communication is not strictly verbal, so being told to listen with just my ears and never my eyes comes across as a strange demand to me, since I know that I will register more of what you’re saying if I look at you while we’re conversing.  Do you not want me to grasp and thoroughly contemplate everything you have to say?

And, yes, I’m aware that there are people who have different kinds of social anxieties and communicative disorders, who are physically and psychologically incapable of making eye contact with others.  But I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of people I happen to come across in casually conversation fall into this category.  Also, as someone who suffers from stage fright, I can totally understand the desire to not have people gawk at you incessantly while I’m giving a talk.  However, the issue I’m referring to here is limited strictly to a one-on-one conversation, usually started by someone approaching me to discuss a topic s/he feels is important enough to speak to me about.  The idea that it is impolite to maintain eye contact with someone who has chosen to speak with me, baffles me to no end, and honestly makes me wonder about the state of our self-worth as a people, when we are so easily unnerved and intimidated by anyone who dares to closely observe and pay attention to what we have to say.

Despite having said all this, I do constantly try to accommodate to people’s desires and limit the amount eye contact I give to a person during conversation, but I really wish someone would give me the guidelines to how much is too much, or not enough, since I obviously am not able to figure it out on my own.

Reclaiming Childhood Fearlessness

Remember being a kid and having little to no regard about your physical limitations.  Jumping off higher and higher surfaces, falling off bikes and skates and getting right back up without a care about the cuts and scrapes.  Man, I remember how I used to love climbing up tree after tree, as high as the branches would support my weight, without ever even bothering to see how high I was.  I fell off quite a few times in these climbs, but then just rubbed the bruises and got right on back to climbing.  Those were the good ol’ days of childhood fearlessness.  Where thoughts of danger take a backseat to irrational impulses.  Fun times, indeed.

Earlier today I was walking up a rather steep flight of stairs, and found myself reaching for the side railing and meekly thinking, “Gee, I hope I don’t slip, that 14-step fall down looks like it might sting a bit.”  It was at that point I realized that my ten year old self would probably love nothing more than to kick my face in for wasting braincells on such silly thoughts.  I think I’ll have to remedy the situation one of these days (and recapture that long lost fearlessness) by trying my hands on climbing a tree or two, just like in those bygone days (I just hope no one mistakes me for a Peeping Tom).  Also, it’s not cheating if I bring a safety harness just in case, right?  Right.

The Need to Resist Institutionalized Fear

Fear is an involuntary reaction to a specific situation, and can often be an indispensable survival mechanism to an organism.  Even if the fear itself yields an irrational response, such as being afraid of heights when standing only two feet above the ground, the fact remains that being afraid of heights (in general) is not an unreasonable mindset to hold (seeing as how the avoidance of great heights altogether will also reduce the occurrence of great falls, and the possible injury or death that may result from them).  The nature of these sort of fears are perfectly sensible when reduced to their core impulses; however, our tendency to allow for our fears to be overgeneralized to more situations than can be rationally justified, is anything but.

The strive for safety is a consequent in the greater pursuit of peace of mind; a goal that is largely unattainable in a modern society, due to the sheer number of unknowns (whether people or places) most of us are forced to interact with to make a living.  As an example, in the course of the past 1,825 days (that’s five years total), I have been mugged walking home in my neighborhood twice.  Now, 2 days of life-threatening fear (of which only a few moments in either of those days are even relevant in this discussion) compared to 1,823 days of mostly undisturbed solace (at least as far as not being robbed at gunpoint goes) is a danger-ratio that should be called too statistically negligible to even warrant a concern.  Knowing this does absolutely nothing to ease my mind when it comes to taking the extra precautions to reduce the chance of such an event happening for a third time.  The reason for this is that we–as a people and as a society–are much more likely to shape our lives around our bad experiences than the good ones, because the bad experiences hold more risk to harm the delicate nature of the personal ecosystems we nurture around ourselves.  And the primary goal of each person’s instinct in this topic is to keep the conditions of her/his ecosystems as controlled and predictable as comfort allows.

On an individual level, this is an understandable development, and as I said before can serve to inform and protect a person when dealing with any future dangers that might come up in her/his life.  However, when dealing on a broader societal scope, our collective sensitivity to (more often than not) respond to dire events with impulsive fear creates something more dangerous than personal panic or an awareness for greater precaution–it creates an unwarranted paranoia, where patterns are concocted to explain a relatively rare phenomenon as compensation for our collected feeling of helplessness in averting a tragic situation.

Very, very bad things happen; very, very bad things will continue to happen; a decent probability exists that very, very bad things will occasionally happen to you.  Yet, a higher likelihood exists that, if you live in the industrial world, the vast majority of your life will not consist of such bad experiences (more than likely, your life be mostly made up of danger-neutral events).  And an even higher likelihood exists that you will ignore this simple fact whenever the next attack, disaster, tragedy, or chaotic event makes the national news.  Moreover, an even, even higher likelihood exists that you will misconstrue my words here as an indefensible call for irresponsible inaction in the face of danger, rather than a warning not to allow institutionalized fear to dictate the means by which we evaluate the world and the people around us.

The reason I care about this topic is that fear–socially appropriated fear touted out as a response to a heinous/disastrous event–is the default tactic used by authorities to endear themselves to a person’s desire for safety to cement their own political interests, while effectively silencing any reasonable opposition or nuance that may be raised to question the merit of these interests.

Fear is the means by which we assess the observable threat in our surroundings to help us avoid suffering and/or death.  Despite the fact that the existence of fear (as a bodily/psychological response) appears to be largely innate, it is also undeniable that many of the specific fears of particular things we have are learned through experience in our interactions with the external world.  My position is that in our pursuit for greater safety, for us as individuals, as well as society at large–especially in the face of tragic events–we don’t make the mistake of adopting fear as the guiding principle from which we argue for social and personal improvement.  Instead, I’d argue that sincere introspection and critical self (and social) scrutiny would make for a more productive means by which to deal with the more frightening facets of social life, and never to forget how, despite their hold on our consciousness, these facets are far almost always less prominent and less absolute than our fears would have us believe.  But that’s just my two cents.