A striking scene in the recent film Darkest Hour comes when Winston Churchill, in a particularly anguished moment, pauses his dictation of a difficult letter and asks about a photo on the desk of his typist, Elizabeth. She reveals that it is her brother, was recently killed by Nazi troops while attempting to retreat to the shores of Dunkirk. Churchill pauses, slumps in to a chair, and then looks directly at Elizabeth for a long stretch of silence. In the midst of quiet, yet resolute tears, Elizabeth eventually turns to the silent Churchill and asks, “What?” Churchill simply replies, “Just looking at you.”
It was the directness of Churchill’s looking at Elizabeth that unexpectedly struck me in this scene. I felt an ambiguous rush of instinctual emotion as I watched. Part of me felt uncomfortable seeing Churchill silently watch Elizabeth in this moment, but I also sensed the love and care present in Churchill’s attentive look. Eventually, Elizabeth breaks the silence and encourages Churchill to continue his dictation, a newfound compassion born between them. I was left with a sense of awe at the power of a gesture as simple as a loving look.
I’ve often had a difficult time looking people in the eye when they are looking at me. When I’m talking and someone is really listening and looking directly at me, I feel exposed, and I get nervous. I become even more anxious in moments when another person and I find ourselves without words, and are led to look at each other in silence. There is some sort of strange fear that wells up in me that is difficult to describe, and that makes me want to break away.
Some time back a good friend and I were talking, and at one point he remarked, “You don’t look me in the eyes very often.” We were sitting down next to one another, and he was looking right at me. He was someone who sincerely knew me, but there was still something about facing his gaze that scared me.
I told him that I had struggled with looking people in the eyes for a while, and that honestly, I didn’t know why it was so hard to do so. I tried to look at him as I explained, but then felt a gut reaction to turn away. I looked slightly down, or up, or anywhere other than at him as I spoke.
After I tried to explain, he said, “Well, just look at me now.” So I stopped talking, and I did. His eyes looked straight in to mine, and mine in to his. I quickly felt a familiar discomfort. But slowly, the seconds ticked by and I didn’t turn away. I began to actually see him. His eyes were blueish, and soon wrinkled at the corners with a smile. His gaze was kind, respectful, devoid of pity or mockery.
Eventually I relaxed enough to notice I needed to breath. My shoulders relaxed, and I could feel the muscles in my face fall. I smiled, and my anxiety started to abate. He continued to look, and I continued to see more and more the love in that look.
I then began to feel what I would describe as a certain kind of exhilarated relief. There was something in his look that touched on a fundamental need within me. To simply be known. To be loved. To be safe, open, and accepted for who I was. To be drawn out of my protective shell toward a real relationship that was not a mere façade I put up to seek affirmation or maintain control.
There was nothing complicated or uncomfortable about what I felt. It was the opposite of complicated or conflicted. It was simply good, true, and freeing. It was like peeling off some sort of heavy medieval armor with its massive helmet having only slits for eyes. I could actually move around in my own skin. To be known, and to be looked at with love: a simple act with the power of a human person behind it.
Pope Francis said that when he prays, he simply looks at God, and God looks at him. I think that watching Elizabeth and Winston in Darkest Hour and thinking back to this experience with my friend help me understand the power of this kind of encounter, whether human or divine. When another person and I look at one another, there is some way in which the full power of who we are is given and received. It can become the space where we meet each of our doubts and fears about ourselves, face them, and then allow the other person to fill that emptiness with what can only be received as a gift: to be fully seen, and truly loved.