CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST
Have you ever been hyper-aware of the gaze of another person? Maybe you’ve realized someone is staring at you from across the room and it makes you squirm. Or have you ever made prolonged eye contact with a friend and felt like that person could stare into your soul?
It’s an incredible thing to look at other people and realize they are looking at you — almost like you’re suddenly connecting with them in a way you can’t put into words. And it can be kind of intimidating, can’t it?
You can’t control what the other person sees or thinks of you. When someone looks you in the eyes and asks for something, it’s really hard to say no without looking away. Maybe you become afraid that people will reduce you, deconstruct you — that they will only see parts of you (the worst parts) and say that’s all there is. The gaze of the other really has a power in the way we interact as humans.
Think about coming face to face with people you have wronged. It’s really hard to look them in the eyes, isn’t it? Because they will see you — you are vulnerable before them. What if they hate what they see?
“Les Miserables” is full of gazes. I’ll admit, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I’ll have to constrain my discussion to the musical and movie (but I’ll wager you haven’t finished the book yet, either). We can arguably feel the effects of the gaze more fully when we see the story performed because we can watch two real people come face to face before our eyes.
If you’re not familiar with the very beginning of the story, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, seeks shelter in a bishop’s residence after being released from 19 years in prison. He has no way to make a living in the world because no one wants to hire an ex-convict, and he feels he has no other options but to steal from the bishop’s house and church. Police catch him as he runs away and bring him before the gaze of the bishop to admit his crime.
In a moment of true vulnerability, Valjean looks up at the bishop, terrified that he will go back to prison and that this holy man will condemn him. But the bishop’s response is not a gaze that reduces Valjean or deconstructs him — it is one of love.
You see, the gaze can make us uncomfortable or terrified, but that wasn’t the original plan. When God first gazed at his creation, he said it was good. Even now, God looks at us not with the gaze of a stoic judge but with the gaze of a loving father. The gaze of love is constructive: it tells you who you are, what is good about you even when you have forgotten, and it calls you back to that goodness.
Perhaps it is even more terrifying to be looked at through eyes of love — to be gazed at by someone who sees you for who you are, even all the dark parts you want to hide from the world, and loves you anyway. Imagine the gaze of Jesus on the woman found in adultery.
For Valjean, this is a truly life-changing experience. The bishop looks at him with a gaze of love and tells the police that Valjean did not steal from him — everything was a gift. He even gives further, offering him golden candlesticks and saying gently, “My friend, you left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind?”
Valjean goes away forgiven and uses the money from selling the stolen (now gifted) goods to become an honest man. He goes on to change and save the lives of many people, and the story is full of moments where Valjean is able to gaze at someone in love.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I dare you to try it out and watch for moments when the characters gaze at each other. Look for the gaze between the two lovers, or for the way Fantine is seen as an object, constantly deconstructed and beaten down, until Valjean is able to truly gaze at her in love.
Then I dare you to become aware of the way you look at other people. If you’ve never intentionally gazed at someone with love, try it! Your friend might laugh uncomfortably (yes, I speak from experience), but there’s nothing like taking time to try to see other people as God sees them. You never know how it could change their lives — or yours.