The Personalist Project

I've noticed in recent years that my favorite thinkers-about-love regularly refer to "the gaze of love." I have immediately in mind Dietrich von HIldebrand, Karol Wojtyla, Jean Vanier, and Roger Scruton. Plato, of course, called the eyes "the windows to the soul." It is in and through the eyes of someone who loves us that we feel and experience ourselves as loved, as valuable, and hence discover our reality as personal selves.

Maria Fedoryka discusses the point in the talks she gave for us a few years back. When parents gaze with love into the face of their tiny child, they are, in a profound sense, communicating to that child her very being, her sense of self: "You are good; you are loved; you are completely unique; you are a gift to us; you belong in our family."

Some months back, a friend linked a great article by Elizabeth Fox Genovese on intimacy.  She quotes Wojtyla: 

To be intimate with someone is to be held—to be held in the gaze of someone who really sees me, to be held up by a friend when I falter, to have my hand held as I go through a moment of grief or joy or beauty, to be held responsible by those I admire for the good and bad I do in the world, to be held in the arms of someone who wants the best for me, and then also, in the words of a friend who prays for me often, to be held in the light.

I think we can hardly overstress the importance (for love and for personal existence and for genuine intimacy) of this need of being seen (and heard) in all our concreteness and individuality. (I am here touching on the same theme I developed a little in my earlier post on the problem of defining love as an act of will.) 

The point becomes more vivid and acute in the contrast—when we experience ourselves as unseen, or, perhaps worse, as the object of contempt.

Roger Scruton's novel, Notes from Underground, provides a literary illustration. The scene is set in Cold War Prague.

Soon I too was denounced for wishing to be a published writer when only time-servers and popularizers had a chance of success. A vague desire to try my luck in America was castigated as an intention to discard my country in its hour of need; and my hopes to establish Mother as a professional translator were dismissed as the belated reaction to a justified guilt. I watched the dark waves of bitterness sweep one after another across his face. And I felt that I was watching a fallen angel out of Hell, ever casting himself upwards into chaos, and always scraping to rest on some black ledge lower down. How I escaped from his presence I do not know. But I recall his look as he closed the door on me: a look of metaphysical dismissal, as though I had lost the right to exist.

The phrase "metaphysical dismissal" captures exactly the antithesis of love, and here, too, it is given in a look.

Jesus said that a man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.

I don't think most of us realize that we hold the power of life or death in our eyes.

Comments (1)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Aug 2, 2014 12:48pm

I read a parenting piece some years ago that made an impression on me. The writer had been worried about the effects of 'empty praise' on children, so she'd always focused on praising achievement instead. Eventually, however, she realized that her oldest daughter was become anxious about activities she had previously enjoyed (like soccer) because she'd made such a strong connection between excelling and her mother's approval and love. 

In trying to talk to her daughter to reassure her, the writer stumbled across something she came to think of as a magic phrase. She said, "You know, I just love to watch you run." And her daughter's face lit up. 

I've found myself using the same construction over and over with my own children since reading that piece because it is so true and it expresses something very important. What you write here about the 'gaze of love' resonates with that. Nothing encourages my children like hearing that I see them--see their joy, their persistence, their struggles, their small victories. And there's rest in it for me, to stop all that I am doing for a short time and contemplate these people I love. 

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