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When is the last time you made serious eye contact with someone? Not just a glance, but sustained eye contact.

Does it make you uncomfortable?

I will admit that I have had to work on making eye contact. I have a very expressive face, and I’ve realized (often the hard way), that one look at my face will reveal what I think about you or what you’ve just said. I’ve been called out for what I thought was an internal eye roll. I’ve also been called out for grinning and laughing when it was not appropriate for me to be finding humor in a situation. As a result, I have worked to be more a little more guarded and less transparent. And while I tend to get in less trouble at meetings, I’ve also noticed I don’t look people in the eye as much as I should. I’m afraid that others will look at me and read on my face and in my eyes exactly what I think of them. For me, eye contact is scary and makes me feel vulnerable.

Andrew Marantz wrote a piece for The New Yorker about Reddit, the online ‘news’ app that invites commentary – “an American social aggregation, web content rating, and discussion website.” In the article, Marantz’s central question of “how do we fix life online without limiting free speech?” is supplemented by a quote of a former Reddit CEO who writes, “the internet started as a bastion for free expression,” but these days, “the trolls are winning.” The article explores the genesis and development of Reddit and pays particular attention to the ways that letting people say what they want often leads to discouraging, nasty, and insulting behavior. In short, when we let people talk with no guidance or restrictions, it ends up more like Lord of the Flies than Sesame Street.

Most of us are not surprised with this outcome. Discouraged, maybe, but not surprised. Reams of paper have been dedicated to thoughtful reflections on the nature of freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. While most of us would probably agree that freedom is a good thing, most of us would probably also agree that freedom with no restrictions often gives the baseness of human nature a more prominent place than we would care to admit. It’s fun to laugh at test answers from kids or satirize things that coaches say. But what happens when a group of people are devoted to making sexually suggestive comments about teachers? Or students? Or young children? Sharing recipes = great! Thank you, internet. Sharing racial slurs? No thank you. How can we have one without the other?

Our pastors recently preached on the passage of Acts 3 and highlighted the part of the passage where Peter and John looked intently at the man, a lame beggar, asking for alms outside the temple:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.  Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts.  When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money.  Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”  So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”  Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.  He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.  When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

When discussing this text, a number of us remarked at the significance of looking straight at someone and making deliberate eye contact with another person. A wise and discerning person pointed out that social media platforms demonstrate our deep desire to connect with others.

And yet, how many of us would rather avoid the people in front of us?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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