When Words Fail, Make Awkward Eye Contact

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Megan Gahan -Eye Contact3

A boy once told me I was terrible at making eye contact. We were in the university cafeteria, and I swear I was listening, but my eyes were flitting about the busy space, landing back on him every few seconds. Our friendship never recovered his innocent observation, as I became incredibly self-conscious of what my eyes were doing all the time. I didn’t want to suddenly start making constant eye contact, so I ended up swinging between intensely staring and completely ignoring him during our conversations.

Over the years, I attempted to get over my eye contact phobia. And I did, with people I knew and trusted. But eye contact is so gutsy. It makes you completely vulnerable to the other person. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to go there with people I didn’t have a history with.

Then I got addicted to steeped tea.

I love the steeped tea from Tim Hortons with my whole heart. You can practically see the Canadian flag flapping proudly from my igloo, can’t you? I get one almost every day. Let me tell you, that $1.80 is well worth it.

The Tim Hortons closest to my home has a drive-thru. Every so often, a homeless person would be sitting next to screen where I would order. He would usually be holding a sign, pleading for work, or food or money. My boys were instantly curious, and I struggled to explain homelessness in words a two- and five-year-old could comprehend.

I began purchasing gift cards to pass on to the men while I was in line. It was a pitifully small gesture, but I wanted them to count on a sandwich and hot cup of coffee for the day. I always received a fervent “God bless you” in return.

I began seeing someone shivering next to the ordering screen every time I rolled into the drive-thru. I kept running out of gift cards and found myself averting the man’s eyes as I inched my vehicle forward. Sometimes I would drive to another location; the need just felt too overwhelming. I mean, was I making even a shred of difference?

Last week, we were at our regular Tim Hortons, and there was yet another man begging. The sign he held indicated he was looking for work. Close by, another sign had “RIP Gary” scrawled on it in bold, black letters. I was out of gift cards, and I turned to talk to my boys so I wouldn’t have to meet his gaze. But my oldest son stared straight at him.

“Mommy, don’t we have anything to give that man without a home?”

Oh, my heart.

I pulled up to order my regular tea and added a gift card. I was forced to park my vehicle and walk over. It was lunch time and the drive-thru line was eight cars long and growing rapidly. I would have to walk past all these people, in my decade-old lavender sweatshirt and sleep-deprived, make-up free face. I left the car running and took a deep breath.

I was walking over, so he had no choice but to raise his gaze and meet mine. I awkwardly stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I wanted to give him the card and run away, but the sign I had seen was bothering me.

“Did you make that sign?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, and his eyes immediately filled with tears. He had lost his friend, Gary, just a day earlier. As he wondered out loud if anyone would remember Gary, his sorrow was so palpable, I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes. There was nothing I could do. Nothing I could say, no pat response I would dare offer. So I crouched down next to his yellow backpack, locked my eyes on his and sat there in the pain with him.

I let his eyes gift me a piece of his story. A story of a man mourning a friend on a cold day.

I jogged back to the car to the squawks of my children, requesting I play their favourite song for the gazillionth time. As the chirpy voices filled the vehicle, I broke down. For a man who was missing his friend. For Gary, who had died feeling alone and hopeless. For eye contact made over asphalt and the smell of running car engines.

When we got home I lit a candle for Gary. I stared at the dancing flame as I spread smooth peanut butter on crisp stalks of celery. And I prayed peace over Gary and for his friend who was missing him.

Eye contact is hard.

It’s hard to invite someone into your pain. And goodness, is it ever hard to be invited into someone else’s pain. But we do it. Sometimes because it’s a person we love. Sometimes because a friend tells us we’re terrible at it. And sometimes because we hope our boys will see us making awkward eye contact, and learn the simple humanity of bearing one another’s burdens. Even in the drive-thru.

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Megan Gahan
If you call me Meg I'll feel like we've been friends for a while, so do go with that. By day I run after two little dudes, but when the house is - finally - quiet I like to write, often a giant mug of Earl Grey Vanilla beside me. More often with a giant bowl of ice cream. I've worked in the fitness industry for over ten years, so talking body image and push-up technique gets me excited. I ponder those things, along with faith, parenting, and my desire to be a superhero over at megangahan.com.
Megan Gahan
Megan Gahan

Latest posts by Megan Gahan (see all)

Megan Gahan
  • You’re making me think about the importance of eye contact and of really seeing another soul. Thank you for this gorgeous reminder.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you for standing with me, as always. I wouldn’t have the courage otherwise <3

  • Melaney G Lyall

    Megan this is such a beautiful experience – tear filled and heart wrenching… how we all long to be seen…. thank you.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you for taking the time to read and encourage Melaney! I so appreciate you.

  • This is one of those topics that I haven’t thought about in a while. I remember when I was little I admired this woman named Tilly, she was my teacher in 6th grade. She was a woman from a Navajo Reservation in Idaho… I remember hearing her tell another child to look at her in the eyes when she talked. So inadverdently, I also chose that I would do the same. My eye-lock stare was an awkward glue fixed gaze upon the other set of eyes, but all the same, I held it there. I remember hearing feedback from the parent-teacher meeting, and my mom told me that she was proud of how I confidently looked into her eyes. I was honored. Yet for years I learned and struggled to find the confidence to look at another in the eyes with ease… I did it because my amazing teacher had said it was important and she was a woman and she held wisdom and I knew it, even then, at that young age. She held wisdom to see, to look and to listen.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you so much for sharing this piece of your story Jenny. I love that you were committed to making eye contact as a result of your teacher (and what an incredible teacher). That’s an amazing skill for a 6th grader to have! I mean, I’m still trying to get comfortable with it! I so appreciate your voice in this space. xx

      • Thank you Megan, yes it was a gift of insight from a very inspiring teacher, albeit my intense stare as a 6th grader was my version of eye contact at the time…. so funny to think about. But it taught me nonetheless. I did go through phases later in life, when eye contact became very difficult and those times also coincided with difficult times when my confidence was waivering and my understanding of my own self was being stretched thin… I found that during those times in my life, I had a hard time listening and a hard time resting my eyes into another persons eyes. It is interested how life carries you to different places and learning to lean in and be a part of one anothers lives is both beautiful and difficult in a multitude of ways. Much love to you! I adore your story deeply.

  • It occurs to me that we live our whole lives in “drive-thru” mode: minimal impact and safe contact. It’s amazing to me that you are using the drive thru as your base of operations for seeing and entering into the pain of the world. You are teaching your boys so much good.

    • Megan Gahan

      Ooooh, what a powerful thought Michele! Minimal impact and safe contact . . . that’s pretty much been my goal! But I don’t want that to be my target anymore. Thank you for the encouragement and love, as always. It’s means so much <3

  • Thank you for this reminder to open ourselves up to others, and inviting them to open up to us. An invitation to courage in the day to day. Thank you!

    • Megan Gahan

      I wasn’t feeling at ALL courageous in the moment, but I love that you see it that way Beth! Thank you for the love and encouragement.

  • Wow. This is one of your best. Grounded and Beautiful.

    • Megan Gahan

      You know your words mean a great big deal to me . . . thank you, my friend. If you like it, I know I’m doing something right 😉

  • Olivia Butz

    I’m not ashamed to say I cried reading this…thank you, thank you, thank you. I have volunteered with a local network of churches that provides cold weather shelter to homeless folks, and the pain and isolation felt is palpable. You are right…one of the best things we can offer is our eye contact. There’s so much in that gesture that recognizes the image of God in each of us.

    • Megan Gahan

      Wow. Thank YOU for your work and kindness Olivia. I love what you said about eye contact recognizing the image of God in each of us . . . what a beautiful way of expressing it.

  • Holly

    Meg,
    Your gift of storytelling is phenomenal. Thank you for showing us your vulnerable side. It always touches me some place deep and important. And it always helps me see what it looks like to rise up and be brave.

    • Megan Gahan

      I just can’t even with your comments Holly. Thank you so very much. Your words mean the world to me <3

  • Tracy Nelson

    beautiful.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you Tracy <3

  • Oh goodness I love you Meg, and I love this piece.

    • Megan Gahan

      The love is very mutual, my dear. Thank you <3

  • This made me chuckle – I’m terrible at making eye contact. Aren’t children incredible noticers? My 4-year-old keeps me aware and looking, even when I want to turn away. It can be so awkward and sometimes I just want to keep moving. But, I’m thankful that she notices and that we are raising girls who want to know.

    • Megan Gahan

      My children’s sole purpose seems to be pushing me WAY out of my comfort zone! So I totally get it! It sounds like you have some pretty fantastic girls <3 Thanks so much for reading Annie.

  • Love this, Megan. And I love God’s timing because this morning I had a rare few minutes to read and actually think about the Bible;-) I spent awhile reading and re-reading the Good Samaritan story and thinking about how inconvenient it was for the Samaritan to stop and help the hurting man. I even journaled about the homeless people I see on the side of the road and avoid eye contact with. And then I read your sweet story. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing this. It hits home with me today.

    • Megan Gahan

      Wow, that’s amazing! That we were thinking the same thing, and that you had time this morning to JOURNAL! How is that even possible? You know how much I love and respect you, my friend. Than you for taking the time to read and stand with me in this today . . .xx

  • Mary Gemmill

    Tears… you have put this deep sorrow into words so beautifully.
    Your children are blessed in their Mama.
    May we all find such charity in our hearts and demonstrate the love of God to all who come across our paths.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you for your kind words Mary . . .they are incredibly life giving. Much love <3

  • Oh this convicts me. It is hard to gaze in the eyes of some. Maybe we are worried if they will accept us, maybe we are worried that we will need to accept them. Maybe we are worried about sharing to much of our soul and them seeing our. Great story and your boys have one neat momma.

    • Megan Gahan

      Thanks so very much Theresa!

  • Julianne Vandergrift

    Thank you for this!

    • Megan Gahan

      Thanks Julianne!

  • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

    Meg! ❤ I love love love this! I love your heart and your courage! Thank you!

    • Megan Gahan

      Thank you for so much for your encouragement Nichole! xx

  • Thanks so much for sharing this! You are braver than I am – I far too often just pass by any person in need and do not take the time to stop and share what I have. I appreciate this encouragement and I hope I take a step forward next time!

    • Megan Gahan

      Oh Joanna, if only you knew how terrified I was! If it wasn’t for those watching eyes in the back seat, I can’t say I would have done it! Thank you so much for your encouragement 🙂