This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells the winding story of the triumph and folly of forever trying to better yourself. This letter is from the chapter on "Dealing with Others".
So this is our first summer vacation since going to college, and I'm curious if you've noticed the same pattern I have. Every time I come home, there's always something something slightly different. There's new rugs and new plates. The TVs are usually a little bigger each time, with more channels or new technology, like HBO on Demand. It's not like these things didn't change when I lived with my parents in high school, it's just that they probably changed so gradually that I couldn't tell the difference.
Lately, I've developed the weirdest glitch in my system. I've become very self-conscious about making eye contact. I started to notice this when looking at newcasters' eyes on my parent's HD TV. When seeing deep into their eyes, I feel a slight tension around my own eyes. I then try to keep staring, hoping to shake off the discomfort, but it just makes me more uneasy. Eventually, I have to look away. This problem has extended to the real world as well. At first, I look people in the eye, then I feel uncomfortable, and then I hold the gaze as long as I can, but then eventually I have to shy away. This has been going on pretty much all summer.
But I think I found a counter-intuitive way to get over it: Just don't make eye contact. I've given myself permission to avert my gaze if I feel at all uncomfortable. I ignore the thought that it's awkward to not look someone in the eye, and instead just do what feels right.
As a result, a funny thing has happened. I notice that I glance around the person initially, but then ultimately my gaze returns back to their eyes unconsciously. I think that the keyword is "unconsciously." If I'm conscious that I'm looking directly into their eyes, then I feel a tension around my eye sockets.
As it is, when we naturally make eye contact, we usually don't laser directly into the other person's irises. Rather, we normally focus at a point about an inch in front of the other person's face, or we typically look at their mouth or nose.
I'm not sure how this eye strain glitch started in the first place. Was it my parent's new TV that made eyes come alive in high-definition? Or is it that I've pretty much done nothing but dawdle this whole summer. I've put together a few random pet projects. For example, I set a goal for myself to learn Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the piano, even though I haven't played piano in five years. Perhaps all this free time is what gave rise to this little loop. If I was really busy, would I have even had time to worry about something small like eye contact? Is that the secret to everything, to just make yourself so busy that only significant problems catch your attention?