Monday, 17 December 2012

Interesting and Liberating - Thoughts on Looking Up

I love to look up. There is so much to see and rejoice in - the ever-changing light spectacle of the sky; the unique and often quirky facades and tops of buildings; the faces of people passing, and of course, trees. I am never bored when I look up. In the most dingy part of the city my eye seeks out, and finds beauty - the wispy mare's tails in the sky, curiously bubbled glass on windows, and the stained-glass effect of sunlight seen through leaves on a plane tree. In surroundings with less aesthetic disadvantages - such as a suburb verdant with trees and gay with flower gardens, or better still, the country - there is even more to see when I turn my eyes upward.

The trees are still more beautiful - have you ever noticed when certain trees are blown by the wind, the sun creates reflections on the outer surface, like a bunch of silver shards shaken on thin wires? Or seen a winter-blasted tree clawing at the sky, like something out of an Arthur Rackham illustration? And faces! Such interesting speculations can be had, on the cause of an expression, or the history of a line. Is that woman's face creased with wisdom or bad temper? Is that man's vacant expression indicative of an empty mind - or is he wandering in some personal dream world?

With such constant stimulation for the eye and brain to be found when looking up - why is it that I see so many people with constantly downturned eyes?

Whenever I am anywhere - out walking in my neighbourhood, in the park, in a shopping mall or in the city - I see them. When I walk by, they scuttle or meander past, eyes down in avoidance of human contact. Bored, they hunch over their iPhones, or slouch idly looking at scraps of rubbish blowing like tumbleweeds across the road.  It would seem most people spend their lives looking downward - at the ground or at their electronic gadgets.

It bothers me. And there are several reasons why.

Firstly, the view when looking downward is so uninspiring. What are all these people looking for on the ground? Surely not gemstones. Now if the streets really were "paved with gold" or studded with gems (as  innocent medieval rustics believed of London and later conquistadors believed of El Dorado) - if our city streets were littered with jewels rather than junk, then I too would assiduously rake the ground with my eyes. But aside from the aforementioned (and depressingly familiar) bit of rubbish - the urban street contains few treasures. Looking down, you are likely to see nothing more interesting or spirit-lifting than grey pavers, concrete and asphalt, blobbed with the tar-like and shiny spots of old chewing gum, scattered with cigarette butts and grimy leaves. And instead of faces - a parade of legs and feet adorned with so much black leather; so many Nikes and stilettos. Where are the vistas - the colours and the wide space, where the imagination is free to roam? Suffice it to say, turning the eyes perpetually downward, rather than up toward the horizon or beyond yields only a limited view, which in turn provides limiting stimulation for the mind and imagination.

My second reason for raising my sights is that it allows me to take my bearings on my surroundings and my life. Without our destination in  our sights - how can we properly direct ourselves? To me, this constant looking down implies a lack of purpose - a directionless wandering of the feet and of the mind. If we look up, then we can clearly see where we want to go, and in a real and metaphorical sense, take steps accordingly.

Finally - it is an act of submission and self-effacement to walk around with perpetually downcast eyes. Every time we drop our eyes before someone else, we self-abnegate, signalling a lack of assertiveness. Whether we do it out of fear, awkwardness or a desire to not stand out - it badly affects our psyches, making us more likely to give way before the opinions of others and stand small.

To break the negative cycle, try raising your eyes. Meet the eyes of others, not in a spirit of confrontation, but creating a moment of human connection and making, every time, a quiet declaration of courage and self-worth. Meeting someone's eye, even briefly, says "I am your equal, and I'm not afraid to show it". When it is time to break contact - look aside, not down. See the trees and the buildings, and the faces of all those other wonderful, complex human beings. Feel yourself their equal too. Eye contact is an empowering experience - looking up is both interesting and liberating.

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