The Value of Eye Contact
In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness. It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.
In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE. The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them. We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.
These villages are incredibly poor. Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs. The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them. Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.
The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.
“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”
“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go? Into the sea?”
Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.
Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.
I hear a low voice call to me.
Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”
I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.
“Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.
“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.
“Of course,” I reply… “How do you know English?” I ask her.
She grins, ruefully.
“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”
“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.
“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.
“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.
“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”
I consider her words.
“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.
“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”
I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.
“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”
“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.
“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”
“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.
“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”
“A message? How?” I ask.
“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”
“They signed it?” I ask.
“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”
The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer
“Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.
It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”
The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.
The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.
“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”
“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.
If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant. But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.
I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.
Does that make the villagers’ accounts false? Yes, and no. Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.
But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative. They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing. They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it. Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.
Does that make their narrative more true? Obviously not factually. But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website. And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.
If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes. You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone. Our virtual world has brought many advantages. But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.
Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.
When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them. Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it. We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.” People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.