I first felt it the day I stared into my classmates eyes for five minutes straight, as per the instructions — this was not a typical class experience, but neither is any day in Prof. U’s classroom. “Now everyone find a partner, maybe someone you haven’t spoken to much yet, sit down on the ground across from them, and stare into each others’ eyes. For five minutes.” Anxious laughter erupted and revealed our thinly veiled panic. I caught eyes with a shy girl I hadn’t spoken to. Momentary relief for finding my partner gave way to a new layer of panic at the minutes we are about to share. We sat down, made introductions, and the timer began.
Welp, this is bizarre. As I looked into this near-strangers eyes, I felt like we were two deer caught in each others’ headlights. What was I revealing? What was she seeing in me? Do I have food on my face? I can feel my right eye twitching. This happens when I laugh too hard. So she already knows I’m a freak. Great. Are my eyes betraying my fear? How can I hide my feelings from someone who is reading my face like a control panel?
Soon enough, I realized I was seeing all the feelings I was experiencing right on her face. We both wanted to recede from this, to look away for just one moment, but we didn’t. As we looked into each others eyes, the instructor prompted us to think about the other person’s life, who they are to their friends and family, what they want, need, what they are looking for, what they try to hide. I dove into her life through her eyes, I imagined how she laughed, I imagined how much she loves her mom, I imagined the gravity falling off her shoulders when she sees the person she wants to hold close, I imagined what affects how she presents herself, carries herself. Leaning into the “windows of the soul”, I imagined details of her life — knowing they weren’t accurate, getting curious to know the real answers, yet finding ease in humanizing her — I started to forget about myself and my anxiety began to soften and melt. As we searched for answers in each others’ eyes, I eventually watched her anxiety begin to melt with mine. I saw her eyes become giving eyes, open eyes, softer eyes, no longer hiding or receding. Was this… love? No. It’s not true that if you stare into someone’s eyes for X minutes, you fall in love, but the essence of that idea holds immense truth. The vulnerability I felt from simply staring into her eyes was soul-baring, going gradually and not-so-willingly from a sense of panic to a feeling of ease, calm, and connection. The longest minute of my life was followed by four of the shortest. Yet I wondered why part of her still seemed scared to be seen by me.
I will never forget those minutes. The stillness, my inability to think about anything but myself, then anything but her, then anything but us, wandering in my imagination of her life, in a place out of reality, out of time, yet infinitely and almost unbearingly present. We were scared at first, knowing we were revealing more than we desired, wishing there was a way to hold some of it back, but learning that the more we tried to hold back, the more we revealed. By the end of the five minutes, I was using my eyes in a way I had never really used them before, at least not with a near-stranger in an academic setting. I wasn’t looking or seeing. My eyes were not simply taking in visual cues. Instead, my eyes met hers and built a bridge between us that we stood on, squarely facing one another. The 5 minute unspoken connection with this person I hadn’t previously spoken more than 10 words to was stronger than any surface conversation I had that day. Or most days. I was incarnated in that space of our connection, in the bridge built between our eyes, with our eyes. I felt like a shell that had been forcibly cracked, unwillingly exposed, only to experience immense relief and fulfillment. HERE I AM, HERE SHE IS, HERE WE ARE. ALIVE IN THIS SPACE, IN THIS MOMENT, and we are SEEN. How incredible it was to realize that connection, vulnerability, even with a near stranger, isn’t scary.
I left that class with a piece of my humanity touched, nourished, and laying bare for all to see and feel. I was yearning to be seen and to see all the beautiful people around me. I walked across the baseball field, from Fayerweather to my dorm, with inexplicable tears bursting from my face, my humanity bursting from my insides, my love for people, my Wesleyan people, my close and distant friends, my family, the people I have met, the experiences I have had and yet to have. But as I continued on my walk home, crying with open and searching eyes, my tears turned bitter. I was casting out my eyes and heart, looking for people to connect to for a moment, but found no eyes to catch mine. Body after body peeled their path away from mine (granted, this might have been because I was openly weeping, but I contained myself and don’t think my tears or sobs were visible or audible from such distances.) This unreciprocated recognition of the people around me continued throughout the day. I sought people, eyes, acts of love, moments of connection, understanding, recognition, and was met with cold stares, evasive eyes, and people jumping through hoops to avoid sharing in each other’s presence. It dawned on me like a dream I had forgotten: this is Wesleyan. This is just the way it is here.
I felt myself receding further and further with each passing face. My nourished and exposed humanity that was bursting at the seams was stifled, choking, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity grasping for breath in her oxygen-deprived space suit. The contents of my cracked shell recollected itself, once again moving within the norms set by the people around me. My eyes and heart had been opened, but left unfilled, began to narrow. A seed in me cracked and wouldn’t close, reminding me with the memory of the feeling, what I was missing out on, what we were all missing out on, through every avoided interaction, conversation, and missed opportunity to connect. This feeling of isolation was no longer an unnamed stranger to me, it had taken off its mask and revealed that it walked amongst us, everywhere, between all of us, in the classroom, while we eat, study, walk, and tune each other out. The stranger looks like all of us. It is everywhere, between us in line, behind us in class, keeping us apart, holding us at a distance, sending us to bed with an aching, vague, deep chill. It’s the stranger responsible for that nighttime feeling when I wonder if that day was worth anything at all (and who even cares?) and knowing my answer is a definitive no. This stranger that walks among us is our own creation. We brought it here and we are keeping it here by sealing up and hardening our exteriors and choosing not to engage with one another.
The student body is fractured, fragmented, disconnected. It took me a while to see this fragmentation, but now that I do, I can’t unsee it. I feel it while walking to class, from the cold shoulders eating lunch two feet from me, from the person who pretends not to know me despite having met 3 or more times, in the most physically intimate moments of “casual sex” with strangers (or “dick appointments”). I’m sorry, but why are we more afraid to make EYE contact than we are to get NAKED in bed with each other? What the F**K is going on? I mean, shit, even our therapists can’t deal.
We fracture along imaginary lines that we have drawn and make real through our actions, lines that have no actual meaning until we imbue and empower them with comments like, “She’s so wetsco”, “He’s so loud side” “They’re an athlete, not a NARP”. We find reasons to disengage from each other because, if I learned anything from staring into a stranger’s eyes for 5 minutes, we are scared to be vulnerable. We are scared to be seen by the people around us because we don’t know what they will see, what kernel of truth they will find, and if we like that part of ourselves. We are so consumed and obsessed with how we present ourselves and are perceived that we can’t interact with each other naturally/genuinely. We isolate ourselves whether it be out of fear, insecurity, performativity, or something else I don’t understand yet. The disconnection and anonymity that pump cold blood through our campus allow the stranger of isolation to walk among us. We have to push through that discomfort, the “safety zone” of disengagement, because surprisingly, self-isolation actually doesn’t feel good! Only then will this chilling isolation leave us alone, with each other. We share 45 Wyllys Avenue in all its problematic history, broken houses, over-PSafing, and big and small personalities. We share it not just in space, not just on the classics line or on Foss, we share it in time, we share it in meaning, we create our experience, our environment, our relationships. We must not merely share the campus, we must coexist, each person seeing and recognizing another. Nothing on this earth lives in isolation, especially not humans, so why are we behaving like we do? Like we don’t feel alone? Fearing eye contact more than anonymous sex. Holding our phones instead of hands. This is not why. Make Wes Love <333333
“Intimate (co)habitation” - phrase borrowed from Soyini D. Madison’s book Acts of Activism
Artwork by Maia Rubin