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Your Wellbeing: the eyes have it

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

I recently watched the 2016 film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, directed by Ken Loach. It is the story of an older man who had to leave work because he suffered a heart attack. Notwithstanding his doctor’s assertion that he was not fit to work, the system deemed him otherwise after a phone interview and withdrew his benefits. The story chronicles the failures of the system that not only lets down Daniel Blake and makes life hell for him but also for other characters we meet in the story along the way. Daniel Blake is routinely dehumanised and patronised by the bureaucracy ostensibly set up to support the likes of him.

The film had quite an emotional impact on me, especially as it evoked memories of my own period of unemployment in the past, long hours of filling in job applications, and time spent at the Job Centre signing on. Oddly, one of the things I found most demeaning by the experience of attending the Job Centre was the lack of eye contact and disengagement with me, my skills and experience as the person behind the desk robotically went through the signing-on ritual, directing me to apply for jobs identified on the database.

They appeared to regard me in the light of the words of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne: “a scrounger” and architect of my own misfortune. Actually, I had left the charity I had worked for over the previous 12 years after it lost funding and hit the hard rocks of the banker-engendered recession. Eventually my own Jobseeker benefits stopped after six months. Before I could be compelled to work for free for a business partnered with the government scheme, I opted out of the system and went freelance while looking for more stable employment.

But it was the lack of eye contact from the Job Centre staff that somehow stands out in my memory of that period.

I felt like a zero, a non-entity, on each visit to the cold and indifferent bureaucratic machine that was my local Job Centre. “I exist”, I wanted to cry. This, I have come to realise, is how many people living on the street feel. On a number of occasions when I had no spare change I would respond to the request for a hand-out from someone begging on the street, saying "Sorry mate, I have no money on me" - to which the person would say something like, "That’s ok, at least you stopped and looked at me. Have a good day."

The eyes speak volumes. I am, of course, aware of different cultural patterns around eye contact. I well remember working in schools and hearing teachers scold a child from a country in Africa and saying, "Look at me when I talk to you", as if the downward gaze was disrespectful while the adult spoke to them. The child was actually showing respect by avoiding the gaze of their teacher, according to their culture. But here also it is the eyes that communicate acknowledgement. Think of how you feel when someone you know passes by without looking at you – even though you may recognise that they possibly were preoccupied, did not notice you or were simply focused on getting to an appointment, etc.

The eyes are an articulate part of our apparatus of communication with others. They convey our feelings and thoughts – even at times when we want to hide them. They can be a subtle, though powerful, means for humanising ‘the other’. A brief acknowledging glance, sustained eye contact, a respectful downward glance, etc. are all to be preferred to the kind of casual indifference toward others into which we sometimes fall. That moment of ‘seeing’ the other person – however briefly and casually – has the potential to make a big difference.

When it comes to kindness, acknowledgement and affirming the dignity of another human being, the eyes definitely have it.

By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Thursday, 10 January 2019