Zachary Alden Smith

From 'look at me' to 'I see you'

When I say "I see you" I build a bridge between us. Over time, the bridges become a lattice, and the lattice becomes a culture. Everyone in the world wants to be seen. The unhappiest cultures try to accomplish it by saying "Look at me! Look at me!" The happiest ones accomplish it by saying "I see you."

– Seth Godin

I've always been a "look at me" person. And I've often been depressed. The connection hit home for me when I heard Seth say the above in an interview. This floored me. And within the same week, I found myself at a conference where the keynote speaker posited this:

From the moment we were born, we were looking for a face. Because until we see a face, until another sees us, we do not know who we are. Every human being, our greatest drama is looking for someone who’s looking for us.

– Andy Crouch

This gave me the feeling of "home" because of the look in my daughters eyes on the day she was born. It was an emergency c-section. I wasn't scared until the doctor put her hands on my shoulders and her eyes in front of mine: "We are going to save your wife." She turned toward the door, and then from over her shoulder: "...and your daughter!"

We were not allowed to see or come close to her for the first 4 minutes of her life. It was the longest 4 minutes I can remember. When I was finally allowed to go meet her, I had my camera ready.

My daughter taught me something in the next few moments: She was looking for a face.

I was not allowed to pick her up. I was only allowed to approach and talk to her. She was kicking and wailing, and had been since the moment she arrived. She didn't seem to notice I was there. Until they said to me: "you can place your hand on her now if you want to."

Yes, I wanted to. I put my hand across her tiny chest. She suddenly opened up her eyes, staring directly into mine.

We stayed that way, I believe, finding a new acquaintance of one another and ourselves in each other's eyes. And then I remembered that my wife was still across the room, and I had a camera. She would want to know what this moment was like.

So I put the camera between us and started shooting. To my daughter's outlook, two friendly human eyes were replaced by one big cold mechanical one. (How I wish I could go back.)

She closed her eyes, kicking and screaming again. I lowered the camera. She stopped; she stared, peacefully, connected. I dared not put an unseeing eye between us again.

Later on this all reminded me of yet another talk:

When women give birth to children, huge surge of oxytocin in their body. This is what’s responsible for the mother-child bond. Right? It’s all that oxytocin in the system...

Another way you can get oxytocin is through acts of human generosity... I was walking down the streets of New York, and the guy in front of me, his backpack opened, a bunch of paper spilled out on the street. I bent down, gathered the papers up, handed them back to him... I did a small act of generosity for somebody. I got a small burst of oxytocin. I felt good. Also the person on the receiving end of the act of generosity feels good. They get a shot of oxytocin. He felt good. He says "thanks." We get to the end of the block, and a guy who also happens to be standing, waiting to cross the street turns around and says to me, "I saw what you did back there. That was really cool." As it turns out, witnessing acts of human generosity release oxytocin.

– Simon Sinek

So many times I walk into a room looking for a feeling. The good feeling I want to have by being seen, understood, appreciated. I'm looking for a person to give me this feeling. My favorite people are the ones who give me that. Because they have made me feel the way I'd like to feel.

I like it so much that it distracts me from seeing, understanding, appreciating them.

The problem is that it doesn't often work. Maybe one out of every hundred attempts. Sonder, right? People have their own lives, their own children to chase around, immediate conflicts, seeking of the good feelings they want.

What I never realized before is that I can give it to myself, by giving it to others.

When I give the human act of generosity of seeing another person, I get the feeling of being seen, right back, every time. Because everyone appreciates being seen.

Not only that, but it's ok that I can't get to everyone. Because, in the off chance that someone else who needs to be seen, sees the seeing that's going on, it's possible that they can feel better, that they are in this environment where others are appreciated to great effect, rippling out everywhere from and to anyone who's willing to give it a try.

People like us. Do things like this.

To become a useful part of a tribe of people founded on this, ever encouraging this, rather than on me as a person or even my art, would be my dream come true.

The clearer imagination of that dream has wrought a change in me. I'm out to be seen by first seeing. And I have reasons to continue:

  • It's more likely that I'll be happy and able to pour myself frequently, generously, delightfully, into the work I'd like to do.
  • It's more likely that my focus on that work will become valuable in someone else's life.
  • It's more likely that I'll be surrounded by the culture of the world I'd like to live in.

My deep gratitude that you've read this far. If you leave a comment below, I'll see it.

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