The Eyes Have It

I suppose it’s true that we can tell things about others by observing their body language; but when we are looking for their essence, we look first in their eyes.  Tiny babies and their parents look for one another, asking by their looking, “Who are you?” and saying, “You are precious to me.”  It’s a magical experience.  They may speak, or simply gaze.


Irecently saw something unsettling on television that left me sad and troubled. It again had to do with the look in a little girl’s eyes:  (the Ally Bank pony commercial).

 This may be a commercial, but the videographer somehow has clearly captured authentic emotion. There are a huge number of citations of this commercial on the net, and lots of argument in the comments over whether there is racial content, or what political hay is made or should not be made over the presentation of the “brunette,” as people often name her out of misplaced delicacy.  Is she black or Hispanic?  These topics don’t hold much interest for me.  The “girl in blue” is darker-skinned, and lovely from the inside out.  She has been treated unfairly, and hurt.  By her eyes, she is holding the malefactor strictly accountable.  I hope it’s my imagination, but I see in her eyes, at the end, that she already knows something I’d rather she never had to discover.  Pause the video there, and tell me what you see.

I was just reading about the Imposter Syndrome.  That’s about people who grew up believing they weren’t much good.  I am one; but it’s more the province of women.  (You can figure that out without my help!)  And among women, an astonishing 93% of black college women.  You can figure this one out too, and it will help you understand why I have some concern for the “girl in blue.”

Even if I’m right, though, John Bradshaw also talks about Ruby Bridges, a black girl attending a white school in New Orleans in 1960.  He marvels at her fortitude.  True grit.  He thinks that she drew her sustenance from an extraordinarily strong family and church.  She was somehow grown up already in the midst of infantile white people who hated her.  (In the newsreel footage from that time, look in their eyes!  Reptilian.)  So maybe there is good hope for the little “brunette,” the little “girl in blue.”

Some of us like to pretend that we are living in a “post-racial” society.  This is a lie.  I plead for honesty.  It’s true that we haven’t had a lynching for quite a while, and that’s a good sign.  But the besetting sin of the human race is self-deception.  It’s why I talk about our deeply perfidious mind.  It will betray us at every turn, always allowing us to see ourselves as better than we are, unless we are on guard.  The price of freedom – here, freedom from self-deceit – is eternal vigilance.  We are not yet very good at it.

Regardless of your political persuasion, if you are pretending that the 20% of us who choose to believe that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, or who don Black Sambo masks at rallies, are anything but racists, you are lying to yourself.  Michael Shermer wrote a whole book called “Why do people believe weird things?”  Toward the end, he asks the question directly, and answers it simply:  “Because they want to.”  Then we must ask why; and the answer is neither simple nor pretty.


One lesson I learned about self-deceit was while I was in Wheaton College’s summer school.  (Wheaton is the Rome of Fundamentalism.  Only in summer school could you enroll without being Saved.  I had been Saved once, but had since become Unsaved again, and wasn’t up to lying about it.)  I was taking two semesters of Physics, taught by a delightful man named Spradley.  But in between, they offered a one-week filler in art appreciation, so I signed up for it.  It was taught by a youngish woman.

We were viewing slides of artwork.  While looking at a slide of a nude woman, she claimed that there was nothing erotic about it.  I protested.  I looked around for support.  There was none!  All heads were down, as if praying.  Everyone wanted to “stay out of it,” obviously.  This was not about central theological doctrine, I saw, but part of the subculture.  Evidently, when a picture of a naked lady becomes a nude at Wheaton College, she acquires a cover woven of the same fabric as the emperor’s new clothes.


I find myself often thinking about ethics because of my nature, I’m sure, and because of my confrontation with Anne Frank when I was 19.  During my adolescence I was submerged in Fundamentalism, and got into the mode of a boy preacher.  I felt a real affinity for the compassionate Jesus, and whenever I devised a talk, it was on that subject.  But when I understood that I had no belief at all in the supernatural parts of the deal, I knew I had to leave behind the warm fuzzies I had enjoyed.  This was very difficult, because my whole life was immersed in that subculture.

Just then I encountered Anne Frank’s diary.  This was the double in the double whammy.  I suppose because I’d never had much to do with school, I knew nothing about the Shoah.  I hurried to find out.  Because I am made soft (and have found that there’s nothing I can do about it), I was devastated by what I discovered – and any fragment of religious belief in me vanished for good.

In Don McLean’s song “Crossroads,” he writes, “But there’s no need for turning back/’Cause all roads lead to where I stand/And I believe I’ll walk them all/No matter what I may have planned.”  If I spend any length of time, as I have today, thinking about Evie, and the girl in blue, and our moral imperatives, that road always leads me back to Anne Frank.

This is the picture that is etched in my mind:


It’s like my mind’s desktop.  It’s constantly reasserting itself.  If I could I would have it etched on my forehead, with the legend “Never Again.”  More than anything, it’s what I have been about ever since I found her.  It underlies my intense anger at all forms of bigotry.  It’s why during Proposition 8 picketing I was driven to my feet and joined the fray, even though I am old.  And this more than anything impels me to write:

Look into her eyes.  I see nothing ominous at all.  What I like about this particular picture is that she doesn’t appear to be aware yet of the doom she began increasingly to fear until she was taken.  But between the picture and the future falls the shadow – the immense, unimaginable shadow.  She will be dead in two years.  She bears a terrific burden on her small shoulders, because she represents for me not only the six million, among whom she now sleeps at peace in the sand forever, but all the other millions, before and after her, who have died and will continue to die because of hatred.  She is the only face – the only person, through her diary – that I know.

We can find many scapegoats that allow us to think someone else is responsible for this particular part of history:  Germans, Hitler, or best perhaps, Satan.  I insist and demand that we acknowledge that all humans – we – I – have the potential for this profound wickedness.  It is cause for terrible despair, and I have felt it myself, deeply.

We have to confront this if we have any hope of overcoming it.  But there is also cause for hope in Anne Frank’s diary, as well as in the good and strong people we each know.  She hoped that if she survived her fearful stay in the attic, she could become a writer; and perhaps find enough wisdom as she matured to become someone who could influence others for good.  Maybe even to be remembered after her death, for what she could give back.

I know enough about human nature to know that, if she had survived Bergen Belsen, in spite of her suffering and grief, her spirit would have survived with her.  I know this.  I know this.  And what is more marvelous still is that she is now probably as immortal as Shakespeare.

I can do nothing now for her.  I will remember her as long as I last, and I can memorialize her, as so many others have done, but that’s for us.  I can weep for her once again, but that’s, I guess, for me.  I can celebrate her.  And the Girl In Blue:  I can hope for her.

Theodor Adorno thought that to write poetry after Auschwitz was obscene.  He was wrong.  Through art we make our feeble attempt to approach the ineffable.  We must do this.  The alternative is silence, which is unacceptable.  George Stevens tried, in his film about the Diary.  At its end, I cannot forget the sound of the sirens stopping outside the Annex; and I cannot forget the image of the gulls, crying, circling high above her attic window.  Despair; and hope.  The stones themselves cry out.  (Even now, in our time and in this land as well as all others, they cry out for the despised victims of our rage.)


 Come back to the present, to the more mundane reality in which we must live, and leave our own faint trail.

One reason sayings become trite is that they are exceptionally worthwhile!  In my house we have a throw pillow with a suggestion embroidered on its face:  “Bloom where you are planted.”  I like this.  It’s all most of us will ever have a chance to do.

In raising kids, our first job is to enable them to become what they will become if we can simply keep from screwing them up.  This seems like a small thing, but it often doesn’t happen.  I think we did that much for our kids.  Of course, I could be deluding myself!  And we added what we could; but that was all cream!  We didn’t find it necessary to yell at them, or whack them.  I think we were lucky, though, because they weren’t the kind of kids that drove us nuts – hardly ever, anyhow…  And they have become people you should know.

Now we have grandbabies.  Two so far.  Inside their little bodies are people we can already tell will be worthwhile.  In them I see an essential goodness.  Beyond that, we are out in our small world, hoping that if we leave marks, they will be positive ones.


Postscript – a professional’s scan of eye-reading

“Despite the 3,000 different expressions we may deploy each day, it’s the fleeting microexpressions that betray many feelings. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us are terrible at detecting them. Still, we tend to focus on others’ eyes, and that helps us. The many surrounding muscles make eyes a richer source of clues than other parts of the face.” – Annie Murphy Paul, Psychology Today, September 2007

And I [Jim Mac] should add that if our eyes were on stalks sticking out of the tops of our heads, they would reveal nothing!


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